Animal breeding in India – a time for reflection, and action


India’s human population of approximately 1.2 billion, fast urbanization and rising per capita income have led to increasing demand for animal-origin foods. Twenty-five per cent and 21.4% of the income of urban and rural households respectively is spent on livestock products. This is an important opportunity for the government and private entrepreneurs to invest appropriately in increasing livestock production, productivity and efficiency and mitigating the perceived adverse environmental impact of livestock rearing. Such investment in properly planned projects would give a stimulus to the rural and thereby national economy. It would also have a beneficial effect on poverty alleviation as more than half of all cattle and buffaloes, almost all sheep and goats, 77% of pigs and 64% of poultry in India belong to smallholders who own ≤1 ha land or are landless (Birthal & Taneja 2006 Workshop Proc. 14. NCAP, New Delhi, India and ILRI, Nairobi, Kenya). They keep livestock mostly in traditional (small-scale subsistence) systems and livestock contribute substantially to their livelihoods and food security.

The Government of India gave an important impetus to smallholder dairy production through the Operation Flood programme started in 1970 with funding from the World Bank and EEC. A large dairying infrastructure was established and significant advances made in milk procurement and marketing, making India the largest milk-producing country in the world. Apart from this success, however, livestock development in India is mostly characterized by policy inadequacies, lack of political will and vision, adoption of programmes without any long-term impact, wasteful government expenditure on subsidies and want of focus in the research and development establishment. Often the implementation of livestock development policies and programmes developed by the Central government suffers because agriculture is a subject under the control of State governments under the Indian Constitution.

The fourfold increase in milk production between 1963 and 2003, with more than half of the milk being produced by buffaloes, was largely not the result of genetic improvement. The dairy sector which provided jobs to 5.5% of the national work force in 1999 is not underpinned by sound genetic improvement programmes for cattle and buffaloes. It depends instead on import of Holstein-Friesian and Jersey bulls and semen and a few institutional herd-based small-scale progeny testing programmes which leave high producing cows and buffaloes with farmers outside their purview. There are a few instances of sustained genetic improvement using crossbreeding in cattle such as the ‘Sunandini’ composite developed by the Kerala Livestock Development Board and the ‘Frieswal’ composite developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in collaboration with Military Dairy Farms. However, after the initial spurt in production, the performance of crossbred cows with various levels of exotic inheritance has stagnated over the last several generations (2000–2500 kg per lactation in farmers’ herds and 3000 kg in organized herds) (Misra & Mandal 2011. Comp. XI Ann. Conv. Indian Soc. Anim. Genet. Breed. ISAGB).

There is no genetic progress among the indigenous cattle breeds either. This has been attributed to ‘absence of rigorous selection, unplanned breeding and poor monitoring’ among other reasons (Gandhi et al. 2011 Comp. XI Ann. Conv. Indian Soc. Anim. Genet. Breed. ISAGB). The legal ban on slaughtering of cows and young bulls in most States of India also acts as an impediment to efficient cattle production and efforts to increase average cow productivity. Draught cattle breeds such as the Hallikar, Kangayam and Khillari are still important for Indian agriculture but genetic improvement of draught characteristics has been neglected.

Crossbreeding with temperate exotic breeds was also undertaken in sheep for increasing wool and meat production and in goats for increasing milk and meat production. A moderate increase was achieved in wool quantity and substantial improvement in wool quality in temperate hilly regions but not in hot arid and semi-arid regions. The improvement in meat productivity with crossbreeding was not encouraging. Crossbreeding increased milk production in goats but continued procurement of germplasm from abroad was problematic. Apart from a few institutional breeding flocks of some goat breeds, there are no sources of improved breeding bucks or does. Pigs are reared mainly in north-eastern India in scavenging and low-input production systems. Crossbreeding of local pigs with exotic breeds appears to be promising under improved management. In the thriving commercial poultry industry, most of the grandparent stocks are imported while a few private companies have bred their own pure lines based on imported genetic material but selected for performance in harsh tropical conditions.

In all livestock species, only about 20% of the total population belongs to ‘recognized’ breeds while 80% do not fall into such accepted categories. All improvement efforts, such as they are, are concentrated on the 20% animals of specific breeds. Excessive emphasis on maintaining their phenotypic ‘purity and uniformity’ is resulting in the neglect of valuable genetic variation in performance and adaptation. Upgrading of non-descript stock with well-defined breeds is widely advocated for all livestock species and is included in the breeding policies of most State governments. As neither the ‘purebreds’ nor the non-descript stock are likely to be performance recorded or selected, it is unclear whether such a policy would bring about genetic improvement in production performance. There are no incentives to livestock keepers who adopt ‘pure breeding’. Awareness of the importance of indigenous breed conservation has increased much after the FAO-organized 2007 Interlaken conference on animal genetic resources. The time has now come, however, to use the networks established by non-government organizations to start community breeding programmes for selection of animals for conservation and further breeding according to livestock keepers’ criteria.

India has several national species-specific institutes and veterinary research institutes with highly trained scientists and ‘state of the art’ facilities and equipment for advanced genomic analyses. However, most research projects undertaken lack practical objectives and applicability. There is total absence of animal identification and performance recording in the field. Small population size of institutional herds and absence of links between organized and smallholders’ herds are major limitations. Multiple ovulation and embryo transfer (MOET), embryo splitting, IVF and cloning technologies have been established but not applied to multiply animals of superior genetic merit. The potential and feasibility of genomic selection are now being discussed. However, extensive validation of the association between genotypes and phenotypes will be needed before genomic selection can be implemented. Accurate performance records on large numbers of animals from a reference population are necessary for this. Simply genotyping animals without such validation or efficient data analysis will be fruitless.

Enhancing the contribution of livestock as a source of income, employment and insurance against risks for people with few other livelihood options is a key objective for India. The almost total absence of effective genetic improvement and dissemination programmes is a fundamental constraint to the development of the livestock sector in India. Systematic effort, adequate investment and long-term commitment towards the goal of optimum resource use are therefore necessary from the research and development community, policy makers and planners. With reasonably high literacy, India could undertake a large-scale awareness-creation campaign amongst livestock keepers for livestock performance recording. Sufficiently large numbers of records would help to overcome the problems of small herd size to some extent. India needs to establish new paradigms for dispersed community breeding programmes based on the needs and involvement of livestock producers and minimum but systematic recording. Unless this is done, livestock keepers will not get the benefit of organized genetic improvement. India will lose the opportunity to breed animals to fulfil national and local production and breeding objectives and will have no choice but to repeatedly import semen or animals selected according to the priorities of other countries.