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Human Stories

Fodder Famines in the Dairy Capital of the World

With over 300 million animals, India holds the world’s largest dairy herd, and both produces and consumes more milk than any other country. But what happens when the industry so many rely on is disrupted? Here’s how climate change is affecting cattle fodder and what that means for Maharashtra women and their livestock.

Only after collapsing did 35-year-old Sita Jhore realise she had walked in the scorching heat for five hours. She had covered over eight kilometres since setting off at 9 am, carefully scanning every field, sometimes venturing deep into her neighbour’s farms. But all attempts ended in disappointment. “I couldn’t find the green cattle fodder anywhere,” she recalls, referring to maize and pearl millet stalks, sugarcane tops, elephant grass, or para grass, usually found in her region. Every day, for over two years, Sita has walked over 16 kilometres to find fodder for her buffalo. From March to May 2023, when India witnessed several heat waves, she walked over 1400 kilometres in unbearable heat - over 40 degrees Celsius.

Like her, at least 100 women from Bhadole village in India’s Maharashtra state go on this daily ‘fodder finding’ journey.

“I can’t afford to buy fodder from the market as the rates have almost tripled now,” she says. It would cost around 15,000 Indian Rupees (€168) per month to buy the fodder for five buffaloes, the equivalent of what she would earn after working in the fields for at least three months. Many landless farm workers go on this daily journey to find fodder, relying on the mercy of farmers willing to give it for free. In the past, local farmers frequently gave fodder to those in need as an act of generosity. However, as crop production has declined across the region, very few farmers are still willing or able to provide such a valuable resource without getting anything in return. “So we toil in their fields for a few hours, and our payment is the fodder,” says Jhore.

Often, this long journey ends with nothing in hand. “The buffaloes go hungry or are fed less. What option do we have?” she asks, pointing towards a significant fodder shortage. “This has become a daily problem now.”

Shantabai Jhore spends most of her time looking for cattle fodder. Her region is facing an acute fodder shortage because of rising heat waves and other disasters caused by climate change. Photos by the Author.

Discover more about farming for gender equality

Sita’s community is not alone in this struggle. A paper published in Grass and Forage Science in January 2022 found that India faces a shortfall of 44% concentrate feed ingredients, 35.6% green fodder, and 10.5% dry crop leftovers.1 India is struggling to feed its 302.79 million bovine population, and climate change is exacerbating the crisis.2 Rising instances of heatwaves and floods are leading to recurring farm losses. In the state of Maharashtra, where Sita is based, the agriculture department reported crop losses on 36 million hectares* of land in the last five years.3

*The 36 million hectares of crop losses includes agricultural areas that have faced recurring losses. For example, if the same farmer lost 10 hectares of crops every year for 5 years, this would be reported as 50 hectares of lost crops.

While there have been global calls to reduce the consumption of animal products in the face of a changing climate, cattle in India are a nutritional and financial lifeline for the poorest people. These vulnerable people would be the worst affected by any legislation created to reduce India’s herd unless we provide alternative opportunities.

Cattle feeding on fodder. Photo by the Author.

The rising use of chemical pesticides is harming cattle

At the same time as becoming less available, cattle fodder is becoming increasingly subject to pesticide treatments. Whenever farmworker Shantabai Jhore from Bhadole village steps into the field, she uses her sense of smell to find the best fodder. “Farmers have started using a lot of chemical pesticides, and its pungent odour is unbearable,” she shares. 

Despite her best efforts, she often has no choice but to feed fodder sprayed with synthetic pesticides to her five buffaloes. “I am helpless,” she says. Recurring floods, heat waves, and rapidly fluctuating local climatic patterns are leading to several pest infestations, forcing farmers to increase pesticide use. Handling the chemical residues comes with its risks. “I get blisters on my hands.” She explains, “It has even caused me multiple skin infections.”

She has also noticed her cattle falling sick since they’ve been eating fodder sprayed with pesticides. “It either causes stomach infections or leads to a lower milk production,” she observes. Maharashtra state used 13,175 tonnes of chemical pesticides in 2021-22, the highest in India.4 But this is not just restricted to Maharashtra. Pesticide usage has increased by more than 57 per cent globally since 1990, reaching over 2.7 million tonnes in 2020.5

Farmworker Sita Jhore has to reject most of the fodder she sources because it is sprayed with harmful pesticides, which can have negative impacts on the cattle. Photos by the Author.

Many of these pesticides cause health and fertility problems in dairy livestock. For example, a 2013 paper from the Indian Journal of Animal Sciences warns, “The early exposure to pesticide residues may contribute to a spectrum of diseases throughout life involving intrauterine growth retardation, disorders of ovulation, metabolic syndrome and sensitivity to cancer.”6

But it’s not just livestock that are affected. Uncontrolled use of pesticides is found to have drastic effects on wild animals and plant biodiversity and is a threat to aquatic life as well. It can lead to decreased oxygen in water and can affect fish populations and aquatic plants.7

Find out more about why farmers use pesticides

The social impacts of fodder shortage

The combination of country-wide farming losses due to climate extremes, land use change, and increased pesticide use is making it increasingly difficult for farm workers like Shantabai and Sita to step out for fodder. “It becomes so hot that I feel like my skin is burning,” Shantabai says. Visiting the villages, I can see that this arduous search disproportionately affects women, who typically do most of the work in collecting fodder. It’s an additional burden on their shoulders and impacts how much time they have to rest and take part in other essential activities.

In 2022, because of an unusually hot March, Shantabai faced a particularly bad fodder crisis.8 During this time, all five of her buffaloes fell sick. “Despite walking for over seven hours daily, I couldn’t find adequate fodder,” she told FoodUnfolded.

She has been collecting fodder for over two decades but has never faced such problems. So severe is the crisis that often, her two sons and daughter have to spend several hours finding fodder, consequently missing out on their schooling. With no other nutritious feed, Jhore has seen a rapid decline in the milk yield. Collectively, the five buffaloes, she says, yield 12 litres of milk a day instead of the 40 litres that was typical when she fed them diverse nutritious fodder. This is a serious problem for people such as Shantabai’s family, who rely on buffalo milk for nutrition and sell it to make ends meet. The buffaloes are often treated like family members in rural communities, and it takes an emotional toll to see them unable to thrive. 

Talking of the declining fodder, she says, “there are no pasture lands left in the nearby areas. Everything has been replaced with sugarcane and buildings.”

Government data backs up her experience. As per the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, and Dairying, the reasons for fodder shortage include: “Changing land use patterns, urbanisation, declining productivity of pastures, diversion of land towards commercial crops, diversion of crop residues to other industrial uses, non-availability of quality fodder seed, and increasing demand of fodder from improved productivity of animals.”9

Declining pastureland is a nationwide problem. Down to Earth reported that between 2005 and 2015, India lost 5.65 million hectares (MHA) of grassland, with the area under grasslands reducing to 12.35 MHA, down from 18 MHA.10 And India isn’t the only country struggling with this. Compared with the year 2000, there are 140 million fewer hectares of pasture land globally, almost the size of Peru.11

“My day begins with worrying about the fodder, and I spend my entire day looking for it, only to keep worrying about it forever,” Sita tells me.

Sustainable pasture management

Despite the difficulties, some people still find ways to feed their cattle a nutritious diet. For three decades, Alka Sarvaday, 50, has spent around four hours a day grazing her animals on communal land. She is the only one left in her community who takes her cattle - three calves and two buffalo - to graze rather than keeping them in one place and bringing them concentrated feed and fodder to eat.

Alka Sarvaday is the only one left in her community in Dharangutti village who takes her cattle to graze rather than keeping them in one place. Photos by the Author.

Alongside grazing, she feeds her cattle maize and pearl millet stalks, which are considered highly nutritious and that a few generous farmers are still giving away for free. “All of this has been possible because there’s a lot of pasture land still available in our village,” she says proudly.

Dharangutti is reporting a decline in pasture land as sugarcane production is growing. But at least for now, the region still has ample grassland for its roughly 100 cattle-owning families.

Many people call her names because she follows the traditional practice of taking her animals to graze. But she has observed positive results as her cattle don’t fall sick often. “Despite the heat waves and floods, nothing happened to my cattle this year,” she shares.

“My father taught me the skill of grazing animals, and I am proud of continuing it even today,” she shares. “Like me, many families have cattle, and bringing so much fodder daily isn’t possible. So, grazing remains the most viable option.” While grazing, cattle get a mix of different grasses against just eating sugarcane tops or stalks and being tied in the same place. “This helps improve their health too and makes them stronger,” she explains.

Her approach is effective but time-consuming. For people working multiple jobs to make ends meet, four hours a day dedicated to grazing isn’t an option.

Forced to abandon cattle

Alka wasn’t always the only person in the village who took her cattle out to graze. Farmer Shalabai Patil, 65, grazed her cattle for over three decades. Over the last two years, when she stopped grazing her animals because of her health, she has seen a rapid decline in the cattle's well-being - partly because the only fodder she could source was sprayed with pesticides.

Because of deteriorating health and the lack of good fodder, farmers Shalabai Patil and Shrimant Patil stopped grazing their cattle. Photos by the Author.

As a result, the Patil family was forced to sell all their buffaloes. “How could we bring over 100 kilograms of fodder daily for these giant bovids?” asks Shalabai. For her and many other farmers, keeping cattle has become unaffordable without access to grazing on communal land. The future of communal grazing is threatened by a widespread shift to sugarcane production. And when the cattle go, so does an important source of income and nourishment.

“Wherever you go, the only crop you will now see is sugarcane,” she says, talking of Western Maharashtra, where sugarcane is predominantly cultivated. From there, the sugarcane will go to factories to become sugar or jaggery powder and be sold in the local market or exported.

However, a few senior farmers are defying this trend towards sugarcane by cultivating indigenous varieties of crops that don’t require chemical fertilisers and can cope better with weather extremes. Farmer Vishnu Kumbhar, 70, cultivates indigenous maize and pearl millet for his cattle every year. Maize fodder is considered nutritious and is even resilient to the changing climate.

Find out more about how senior farmers are protecting ancient crops in the region

“These crops are easier to grow and don’t require any maintenance either. Also, buying fodder from the market is unaffordable,” says Kumbhar. He hasn’t faced a fodder shortage yet, thanks to his decision to retain the traditional millets and diversify the crops. Since traditional varieties are pest and climate-resilient, it’s also helping Kumbhar mitigate several farming losses caused by climate change. Another positive impact Kumbhar has observed is that a handful of farmers are reaching out to him, asking for the seeds of these traditional varieties. “It’s a small but important step,” he says proudly.

But while traditional fodder crops can help us to keep cattle healthier than newer varieties dependent on chemical inputs, not everyone with cattle has access to the land to grow them. For the landless people raising cattle, the protection of traditional communal grazing rights and the continued generosity of farmers remains a lifeline for them and their animals.

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