Milking For Tomorrow

By Team Digit | Published 01 May 2006 13:50 IST
Milking For Tomorrow
Milking For Tomorrow
ld-timers will remember the days when milk was a rationed commodity. You got up early in the morning, took your milk-card to the nearest milk booth, and picked up an allotted quantity. Operation Flood changed all that: not only did milk become available in whatever quantity you wanted, India became the largest milk producer in the world.

While this may sound impressive, veterinarians are not quite impressed. Dr Abdul Samad, Head of the Department of Medicine at Bombay Veterinary College says, "We may be the largest producer of milk, but this is from the largest population of cows in the world."

Milking Tech
What Dr Samad is referring to is that when some countries in the world are able to milk 10,000 kilograms of milk from a cow during a lactation cycle of 305 days, we in India manage only 800 to 900 kg-yes, you read that right-just 800 to 900. Now, the same was the case in countries such as Egypt and Israel about 30 years ago. Today's figures in those countries stand at 12,000 kilograms. The secret, according to Dr Samad, is a scientific approach to the problem-a system of data recording that enables identifying genetically good animals for breeding, analysis of trends, and the prediction of fertility and production problems.

Towards this end, Dr Samad is conducting several pilot projects, one of which is at the farm in Bhilwadi (district Sangli), from where Chitale Bandhu, perhaps Pune's most well-known sweet shop, gets its milk. In collaboration with Mumbai-based Infovet, he has developed a dairy animal health and productivity management software called Herdman. Infovet has also developed other software such as SemenPerfect for semen centres and progeny testing-an important activity for genetic improvement of animals, BreedCon for indigenous cow/buffalo breed registry, and, a site where animals and related products and accessories can be bought and sold. Pashubazar is being implemented with the help of village dairy co-operatives, veterinary hospitals and rural agri-business centres. This is probably the first ever effort towards using information technology in the livestock sector in rural areas.

As a benchmark for quality, the brand Chitale is able to command premium pricing for most of its products. Even a litre of Chitale milk-perhaps the most generic commodity in the value chain-sells for a good rupee more per litre than that from competitors.

The Chitale brand equity is an outcome of careful attention to many details, including a feeding system that ensures that every buffalo consumes an exactly pre-determined portion of feed. The monitoring system at the farm in Bhilwadi includes two tags around the neck of a buffalo, an orange ID tag and a blue smart tag. The former is a simple numbering associated with the ID stored in a computer, and the blue tag is a metallic cover under which a smart card has been locked. Buffaloes aren't really expected to maintain discipline, hence the metallic cover-which ensures there's no damage to the card inside.

Every time a buffalo enters the milking parlour, the transponder-a device that transmits and responds, hence the word-in the strap is identified. A warning lamp lights up on the milking point controller (MPC) at the appointed symbol, if the buffalo has not been milked, or if the milk has not been directed to the tank, as in the case of theft. If the buffalo does not produces as much as expected, a different warning light glows.

Manning The Herd
It was at this level of existing automation that Dr Samad began his pilot test of Herdman. According to him, the software has been developed for the small- to medium-scale farmer with a minimum of 50 animals. Created in 2003 on a VB-Access configuration, the present version of Herdman uses .NET for the front-end and SQL Server for the back-end.

Every animal in the herd is registered based on its unique ID, and herds and lots are created. Next is the various data entry modules. Records are maintained about pregnancies, calving, illness, treatment, milking, and whether a particular animal is in oestrus.

Periodic monitoring of these records, according to Dr Samad, takes the focus away from "fire-fighting" to health management. For example, a periodic reading of the milking records identifies low performance when it occurs-even a variation as low as 500 ml a day. Herdman not only calculates the averages for the herd or lot, but also the standard deviation for the herd: a low standard deviation indicates that the problem has a common source which needs to be identified, whereas a high standard deviation indicates that only a few animals in the herd are low performers. Effective use of the software does not require daily data entry for milk; once-in-a-month figures are all that the International Committee on Animal Record stipulates. Other data such as insemination, pregnancy, calving and treatment is recorded as it occurs in the farm or village.

Statistics And Decisions
Dr Samad further explains how Herdman helps in right decision-making.
When lactation is plotted against days, the curve must peak at 30 to 40 days. Also, 40 per cent of the total productivity is to be achieved in the first 100 days. If this does not happen, the cause of the problem is considered from the earlier-mentioned statistical technique.

In the event of it being a "common-source problem," the next step is to identify that common source. A typical correlation is that the feed quality or quantity is not proper. This is when Herdman's "Metabolic Profiling" module comes into play: the program identifies "random samples" from the entire herd. This has to include a weighted sample of animals from each category: freshly-calved, mid-lactation, late lactation and dry.

Blood samples are taken from each, and the results are analysed by Herdman as mean plus or minus standard deviation for different haematological parameters-such as RBC count-and chemistry parameters. For feed decisions, chemistry parameters such as blood glucose, blood urea, serum proteins, calcium and other minerals are considered.

The Software
Other features of Herdman include:
Action List: Farm activity scheduling is enabled with an "Action" list generated from the database. List of animals in oestrus ("heat"), those eligible for pregnancy examination, drying off, due for calving, milk recording, and so on, are generated. This streamlines the farm management practice, which no more depends on mere observation.

Alarm List: A list of animals not performing in accordance with standards of production and reproduction.

Every animal can be monitored using Herdman

Feed Formulation and Scheduling: Based on the feed requirement for different categories of animals-lactating, dry, pregnant, and so on-Herdman generates a feeding schedule. Cost of feed and cost per animal, too, can be tracked.

Herd Performance Indices: Production and reproduction-based herd indices are calculated as mean plus or minus standard deviation for each lot or herd. These indices define herd characteristics. For large-scale decisions, the herd has to be treated as a whole: for example, if after tweaking the feed and so on, a particular herd falls below the standards, it will be culled.

Medical Records: The lifetime record of all the treatment carried out on a particular animal are held here. The dosage of commonly-used antibiotics and residues within the withdrawal period for each are also inbuilt.

Report Generation: Current or date-specified reports of milk production, breeding, bull performance, due for calving, heifers, calves, and so on can be generated category-wise.

The Chitale-owned farm at Bhilwadi with its pre-existing systems used to achieve a milk yield of 2,500 litres in a 305-day lactation cycle against the national average of 800 to 1,000 litres for a buffalo. Herdman increased the 2,500-litre figure by about 10 per cent. Also, a remarkable reduction was seen in the quantity of antibiotics that needed to be used: this was a result of Herdman's ability to predict sicknesses at very early stages. Breeding efficiency was another area of improvement.

The Next Step: HerdmanCoop
It was the creation of milk co-operatives that resulted in the present abundance of milk in India. This co-operative movement forms the backbone of the dairy industry in the country. The basic unit is the primary dairy society in a village with 500 to 1,000 animals. Several such societies federate to form the block-level or district-level federation. These federations provide milk collection as well as veterinary input services.

HerdmanCoop is a version designed to run on the Milk Union Server, with PDAs for data collection at the village levels, and touch-screen access for the village dairy farmer. While the modules are similar to those of Herdman, the critical difference is in data input and validation mechanisms, in the absence of the formal establishment of an organised farm. The zone veterinarian analyzes data for each village, considered as one herd, and works with farmers in optimising fertility and productivity to make the dairy business profitable for the farmers. In March 2004, the World Bank conducted the "India Country Development Marketplace Competition," and invited innovative and novel ideas for improving the access and quality of services in rural India. Dr Samad's proposal to implement IT-enabled veterinary services to improve animal productivity, milk quality and farmer profitability was awarded the top rank amongst 1,500 proposals received from across the country.

Supported by the NABARD (The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), the co-operative version of the software has a two-year research funding for deployment, testing and validation, and is already deployed at Sangamner District Co-operative. Other than being able to improve genetics by planned breeding, it also enables the management of the health and productivity of the animals. Moreover, the data mined is of much value to pharmaceuticals developing drugs for the dairy industry, research institutes for identifying problem areas, and the government for rational planning.

Vetting For Quality
Most co-operatives have a para-vet who periodically visits the village milk collection centre. Apart from his usual duties, he is enabled with a PDA with a customised application for data collection. All permutations and combinations of entries are already fed in so he doesn't have to type but only select the activity. The para-vet is responsible for updating the (local) data he collects on the milk centre computer.

When the para-vet visits the zonal centre, he hands over a USB stick with the data he has collected to the veterinarian there, who can load it to the server linked to the Milk Union Server. For the case when these visits to the Milk Union Server are irregular, a GPRS data transmit option to the server is being developed. Data from all the Milk Union Servers will thus form a state-level animal grid. The farmers get monthly report in his language describing performance of each cow / buffalo. 

A critical aspect of the system is the validity of the data submitted by the para-vet. Among the different options in data authentication is RFID-activated access to the animal data recording module in the PDA, which means an animal's file can only be accessed in the presence of its RFID tag-necessitating that the para-vet visit the animal. Whereas, as of now, the veterinarian only manages sick animals at the dispensary, the data recording system would improve services to the farmers since the protocol of services would be generated by the PDA. This will bring veterinary services in India at par with those in the developed world. 

A para-vet showing off his PDA

Among the developmental issues being tackled is distance-reading capabilities for the PDA, since proximity may cause the animal to jerk or damage the PDA reader in other ways.

From the farmer's perspective, he can visit the village milk centre and access records of his animal, get information on animals available for sale and access Availability of animal milk, breeding and medical records at the time of sale would fetch the farmer better price for its cow and the purchasing farmer would remain assured that he has bought the right cow or buffalo. Touch-screen access for farmers is also under implementation-this will enable them to access data of their animals from the village milk centre computer by themselves. In developed countries, there are independent organisations for data recording, making the exercise expensive.

Dr Samad, assisted by his team, has developed a system wherein the veterinary service provider captures data in the same visit. 

Available in all Indian regional languages, HerdmanCoop, if successfully deployed, could change the face of dairy-farming in India right at the grassroots level: a state-level animal grid could very well bring the Indian dairy scene on par with countries such as Denmark and Canada.  

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