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Drought dashes model farm dream

- Three years without rain force dairies to sell cattle to slaughterhouses

Dairy farmer Nivrutti Bhagwan Gaikwad, 42, wanted to take no chances with nature.

A hardworking and enterprising man, he built his cattle shed scientifically in consultation with livestock experts, installing air coolers and filtered-water pipelines for his cattle, building separate compartments for the cows and the buffaloes, and erecting a fodder godown.

He used high-quality cans to collect and transport the 180 litres of milk his 50 cows and buffaloes produced daily, earning him a monthly profit of Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. Once he bought more cattle and raised the yield to over 1,000 litres, he thought, he would buy a bulk milk chiller and give his milk a brand name.

But the dream lay in tatters last April. That was when his huge well ran out of water and Gaikwad was forced to sell his high-yield cattle at huge losses.

For all his planning, there was one threat he could not have fortified himself against. In the vast rain shadow area of western Maharashtra and Marathwada, farming still remains hostage to the monsoon’s moods in the absence of proper irrigation.

Gaikwad had tried his best, recycling his water, building farm ponds to harvest the rain, and avoiding wastage.

But a third straight year of drought proved too much even for a man who had left his gold-refining business in Mumbai eight years ago to return home to look after his parents and set up what his neighbours at Shetfale village called a “model” dairy.

“I had no option but to wind up my project. There’s no water anywhere,” says Gaikwad, who had hired a fulltime caretaker from Uttar Pradesh at Rs 7,000 a month to rear the animals.

Triple blow

Gaikwad had kept his chin up when it didn’t rain in the monsoon months of 2010. Then 2011 came and went and so did 2012. It did not rain.

By the early summer of 2012, most villagers in Shetfale had begun to sell their cattle at distress rates — to slaughterhouses or to buyers from outside the parched region.

Farmers say that Atpadi block in western Maharashtra’s Sangli district, where Shetfale is located, suffers from water scarcity every summer but the acute drought continuing since November 2011 has been the worst in decades.

“Usually, some wells and ponds last through the summer,” Gaikwad says. But today, every single water source within 200km of Shetfale is dry. The situation is worsening by the month and many families have migrated.

The government’s tankers — bringing 5,000 litres of free water per day — are the only source of water for those villagers who cannot afford the private operators’ charge of Rs 900-1,000 a tanker.

Gaikwad’s shed once had 50 animals, including 22 expensive Holstein cows and six local Khillar cows, each costing over Rs 40,000. It now has about half-a-dozen buffaloes left. He says that with green fodder too becoming scarce like water, he might have to sell them next month.

Across drought-hit western Maharashtra and Marathwada, cattle prices have fallen from Rs 30,000-40,000 to Rs 8,000-9,000 because of the distress sale, says Arjun Bhagwan Ware at village Barhanpur in Osmanabad, Marathwada.

“I used to earn Rs 400 a day from milk sales last year; I am earning Rs 100 today,” says Ware. In another month, he fears, his income will fall to zero. Barhanpur is surviving on just one tube well and a tanker that comes once a day.

The cattle sales at Shetfale have stopped for now after the government recently set up a cattle camp nearby where the animals are fed sugarcane brought from water-rich parts of western Maharashtra. The camps also provide some sugarcane to farmers like Gaikwad to feed the remaining cattle in their sheds.

From an average one lakh litres a day, Atpadi block’s daily milk collection is now down to 50,000 litres as its cattle population has halved.

Long-term fears

The drought’s impact on the dairy farms will continue to be felt for years even if this monsoon brings rain, fears Niteen Markandey, head of gynaecology and obstetrics at the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Parbhani, Marathwada.

The population of milk-yielding cattle has fallen by some 15 per cent in Marathwada in a year; Markandey fears it will plunge by at least a further 40 per cent.

Those animals that survive the drought will take at least a year after the 2013 monsoon to regain their health and get back to reproduction. That is, if it rains and they get green and nutritious fodder.

Those like Gaikwad who have lost their animals will take several years to buy new cattle, says Markandey, who has authored several books on dairy farming.

He adds that the predominantly sugarcane diet the cattle are now getting would lead to “gigantic” health problems for them. “In principle, sugarcane feed should not constitute more than a third of the total feed,” he says.

Indeed in many cattle camps — now sheltering 500,000 animals across the state — the cows and buffaloes are suffering from excessive consumption of sugarcane, farmers say. But amid a fodder scarcity, it’s the only option.

The Congress-NCP government recently mooted a programme to plant fodder crop over 3 lakh hectares. Nobody knows where it will be grown and when it will become available.

From Dhule in northern Maharashtra to Sangli in the south, one-third of the state is reeling under a drought that has devastated small businesses and agriculture and thrown public life out of gear.

The distress is deepest in Marathwada, where cattle camps are fewer and far between compared with politically powerful western Maharashtra, which produced nearly half the state’s 1.25 crore litres of milk.

Ahmednagar, in northern Maharashtra, had a robust milk economy too but with half the district in the grip of a drought, it has taken a hit.

‘Luck’ and pluck

Gaikwad sold his cattle — a “painful decision” — to a farmer in Karnataka. He feels “lucky” that his animals did not end up in a slaughterhouse.

A school dropout, Gaikwad had moved in with a relative in Nanded, Marathwada, to work in a small gold-refining unit in 1985 when he was 15. Seven years later he moved to Mumbai and set up his own unit.

In 2005, he returned to Shetfale while his younger brother Pramod took care of his unit in Mumbai. “Give us water and we’ll turn it into gold,” Gaikwad says.

He says his farm is set near a proposed canal that would bring water from a lift irrigation project in the Krishna river basin. The project has been on for two decades.

His cattle gone, Gaikwad is not giving up. “I’m thinking of rearing sheep and buying some chickens to start a poultry farm,” he says. “They don’t require much water.”

In hindsight, he says, he should have taken his parents to Mumbai instead of returning to Shetfale. Hundreds of young men from nearby villages are migrating to Mumbai, Pune or Nashik.

“You get enough water there,” he quips, “you don’t need to worry where it’s coming from.”