– K.P.Ramesha

Domestication of native cattle (Bos indicus) appears to have taken place around 7000 to 8000 years ago, in the Indus valley region of present Pakistan. The seals from Sivikotada in Gujarat and Kalibanga in Rajastan in India show images of domestic animals probably reared by Harappans (2000 BC to 1600 BC).

Fossils of Bos acutifrons have been discovered in Siwaliks, which are regarded as possible wild ancestors of cattle. These findings suggest that
domestication of cattle in Indian Subcontinent antedates Europe and North Africa. In Hindu mythology Nandisvara (king among bulls) is venerated as vehicle

(Vahana) of Lord Siva. In Hindu temples Nandisvara is seen opposite the Siva Linga. Since Siva is believed as the protector of the universe, his vehicle (Vahana) seems to have shared his responsibility in providing nutritional security by being farmers’ friend. During the medieval centuries bull was sculptured in majestic postures and installed in Siva temples as seen in “Chamundesvari” temple in Mysore, “Lepakshi” temple in Andhra Pradesh and Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu. Even today Hindus consider it a meritorious deed to perform “Vrishotsarjana” ceremony in which young and energetic bull is selected and set free for the benefit of the community. The practice of “Brahmini bull system” in Andhra Pradesh (when a well-to-do man dies a good stud bull selected by a special committee is dedicated to the local deity) helped in the development of Ongole (Nellore) breed of cattle. Nobody obstructs its free movements and  becomes property of the community and this serves as breeding bull to the cows. Even now cattle herders particularly in parts of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu maintain their separate identity and lead a pastoral life. Earlier times they were in-fact the transmitters of culture and commerce along with their cattle wealth (Godhana).

Native cattle biodiversity:

A prominent hump, a long face, upright horns, drooping ears, a dewlap and slender legs characterize the indigenous cattle. They have lower basal metabolic rate, better capacity for heat dissipation through cutaneous evaporation and thus adaptation to tropical heat and resistance to diseases specially the tick-borne diseases than Taurus cattle. Majority of crop growing and livestock rearing areas in India are dry land areas with low and medium input production systems which favor conservation of animal genetic diversity while intensive systems of animal agriculture with high input practiced in industrialized countries erode genetic diversity. India has contributed richly to the international livestock gene pool and improvement of animal production in the world.

Brahman cattle are found in 45 countries while Sahiwal breed is found in 29 countries. Many cattle breeds of Indian origin have made major contribution to the development of composite breeds elsewhere in the world. The cattle in India are broadly categorized into three groups, milch breeds, draught breeds and dual-purpose breeds. There are thirty three breeds of cattle in addition to a large number of non-descript cattle, which are generally small in size and low producing. It is estimated that only about 18 per cent of the total cattle in India belong to well defined breeds. The northern and western region is the home tract for milch breeds like Sahiwal, Tharparkar, Gir and Red Sindhi. Gujarat is the home tract of Kankrej, the heaviest breed of India. The southern region is the home tract of many indigenous breeds including world famous draft breeds like Amrithmahal, Hallikar, Khillari and Kangayam and dual purpose breeds like Ongole, Deoni and Krishanavalley. Besides these, small sized breeds like Punganur, Malnad Gidda and Vechur and other minor varieties like Bargur,
Umblacherry, Alambadi are also found in southern India.

Special characteristics of Indigenous cattle:

Indigenous breeds are well known for heat tolerance, hardiness and ability to survive and perform even under stressful conditions and low input regimes. Different breeds of indigenous cattle (Bos indicus) were evolved over centuries to suit to different agro ecological situations. The general superiority of indigenous cattle with respect to heat and insect resistance, adaptability to tropical environment, disease resistance is well recognized (Ramesha et al., 2007). Most of the indigenous cattle can withstand and graze even at atmospheric temperatures of 40oC. The extensive area covered by the dewlap, loose body skin, more sweat glands and hair coat play a vital role in its heat tolerance. The Indigenous breeds of cattle generally have more number of bigger, functional, sweat glands per unit area of the skin which helps them to survive under higher temperature. They have highest cutaneous and lowest respiratory heat loss, as such panting is less. Their low level of metabolism also contributes to their ability to withstand for long without food and water, which makes them more suitable for drought prone areas. Indigenous cattle consume food frequently but less at a time, generating less internal heat which makes them more resistant to heat. They can switch its body skin and drive away flies, fleas and mosquitoes. Indigenous cattle possess natural resistance to various insects, as their skin has a dense texture, making it difficult for blood sucking insects to penetrate. They also have a well-developed subcutaneous muscle layer, which enables them to remove insects simply by shaking their coat. The sweat also acts as a repellant to these insects due to its peculiar smell.

Zebu cattle have the ability to convert low protein, high fiber roughage materials into high-grade foodstuffs with the aid of omasal symbionts, so thrive and performs well on inferior fodders. They have the ability to reverse down metabolism during extremes of scarcity but show quick response in the form of better reproductive and productive efficiency when nutrients are plenty. This will be of great use in situations like drought, famine etc. Case study conducted in Gulbarga and Bidar districts of Karnataka during 1999 to 2002 indicated that indigenous cattle are able to conceive after drought, while exotic and crossbreds once they exposed to lack of feed and water, thereafter they conceive seldom. Zebu cattle are efficient forager and their tight sheath and small teats avoid injuries during grazing. The sloppy rumps in draft breeds make them suitable for quick and hard work. The white or light colored, short, sleek, densely, reflecting and glistering coat in indigenous cattle will not attract vectors and dislodge them. Their pigmented, mellow, loose, thick skin and presence of subcutaneous panniculus carnosis muscle help to repel vectors by twitching. Flexible tail tip helps as a brush to repel vectors. Premunity is
high and reticulo endothelial system well developed in zebu cattle. They have highest ability to self-preserve and longevity is more than 15 years, while many animals survive up to 20 years with high reproduction rates and more number of lifetime calves. Many cows have given even 15 calves in their life time. They have outstanding mothering ability. They calve with ease and dystokia is rarely reported. There is a great degree of genetic variation in indigenous breeds with respect to size, productivity, growth rate, reproductive efficiency which can be made use for the improvement of cattle worldwide.

Population trend and present status of native cattle:

According to the 17th Livestock Census conducted in 2003, India has 185 million cattle population. Despite low productivity of animals, India is the largest producer of milk in the world. In spite of large number of indigenous breeds, majority of Indian cattle belongs to non-descript type. The cattle population grew by less than 1 percent per year between 1951 and 1997.  In India decline in the ratio of human: livestock is sharp, the cattle: human ratio has declined from 430 per thousand in 1961 to 278 per thousand in 1981 and is expected to drop to 20 per thousand by the year 2011. In spite many superior characteristics the local breeds of cattle are disintegrating and degenerating both in quality and quantity due to intensive modern breeding methods. The net result is that a few of the well-established breeds such as Punganur have already become extinct, and breeds like Krishna Valley is fast approaching the stage of extinction

(Ramesha et al., 2000). Excellent draft breeds such as Amrithmahal, Hallikar and Khillari and good milch breeds like Sahiwal, Tharparkar and Red Sindhi have reduced in number as well as in quality. The genetic base of native cattle population for future genetic improvement is threatened due to our reliance only on crossbreeds with Jersey and Holstein-Friesian aimed to improve the milk production. The focus on maximizing immediate financial returns has alarmingly threatened the breeds bred for a variety of domestic purposes. The factors responsible include indiscriminate crossbreeding, loss of grazing land, globalization of economy, catastrophes, conflicts, legal restrictions on marketing of livestock products, invasion of chemical inputs into agriculture, large
scale mechanization of agriculture and transport, changing cropping patterns, degradation of forests, shrinking grazing and water resources, state driven aforestation and silvipasture programmes (Ramesha et al., 2000).

Role of Indigenous breeds:

Indigenous cattle have the function of savings and insurance besides providing a means of livelihood diversification. Most of the agricultural operations and transportation in rural India still depend to a large extent on animals’ power. Out of a total of 81.5 million operational land holdings in India, 72 percent are smallholdings whose owners can hardly afford even a single pair of bullocks. Further, the increasing costs and limited availability of fossil fuels make it impossible to completely dispense with draft animal power for agricultural and rural transportation in the near future. Under these circumstances Indian agriculture will continue to depend upon draught animals for a long time to come. Besides these, the animals also provide dung, which is used for fertilizing the fields as well as fuel in the form of dung cakes in villages. It is reported that fermentation of 75 percent of the animal dung collected would yield an estimated 195 million MW energy and nearly 236 million tones of organic manure would provide around 35 million tones of nitrogen, more than the existing nitrogen chemical fertilizer manufacturing capacity in India. The cow dung and urine increases the soil fertility and maintain soil structure. Cow urine has a good pest repellant property. In view of this the local animals will continue to contribute substantially to the economy of India and there is a need to make use of their capabilities in an effective manner. Even now, cows also have social and ritual roles in some societies. The medicinal properties of milk, ghee, curd, urine and dung of indigenous cattle are well known in Ayurveda system of medicine.

India is signatory to both Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Maintenance and protection of remaining livestock breeds is mandated by CBD. This legal instrument emphasizes need for the conservation of agro-biodiversity in the surroundings, essential to support the system. It also emphasizes active involvement of indigenous communities, their knowledge and their active participation in conservation.

Globalization in trade and investment through harmonization of national laws, particularly dealing with intellectual property rights in different areas
including animal agriculture is one of the major impacts of GATT/WTO (Ramesha et al., 2007). Today, Multinational Corporations want to safeguard their claims to animal breeds with patents. The corporations like PIC and Genus are active in filling patent applications in the field of animal breeding.

The production and market requirements will inevitably be different in the future from what they are today because of likely changes in consumer needs, physical environment etc. Presently we are facing the problem of failure to match the genetic resources to the production environment. The challenge of the millennium is to evolve sustainable farming models for the small and marginal farmers who form the largest chunk of Indian farming community. Farmers have to choose animals which can survive and perform optimally under the existing agro climatic conditions by utilizing the locally available feed and fodder resources in a sustainable way with least health problems. The importance of zebu cattle is likely grow because of global warming and growing emphasis on sustainable and organic agriculture. Inherited resistance/tolerance to disease and parasites in livestock has always been a valued trait among stock owners.

Identification of genes for unique characteristics in local breeds will go a long way not only in the advancement of science and livestock production, but also pave way for patenting of gene sequences for these traits. If proper internationally accepted legal system is developed with respect to use of animal genetic resources, patenting of novel genes will bring about economic benefit to the livestock keepers through benefit sharing (Ramesha et al., 2007).

Livestock agriculture is the only way to produce food in many of the world’s harshest environments–deserts, steppes and mountains. Locally adapted breeds enable these vast areas to be used in sustainable manner. As we cannot change the nature, it is wise to protect and improve them not only for the benefit of the existing population but also for the future generations.

Ramesha, K.P., Obi Reddy, A., Rao, M.K., and Bhaskar, B.V. 2000. Krishna Valley: a powerful breed of cattle on the verge of extinction. The International conference on small holder livestock production systems in developing countries. November 24-27, 2000 at Thrissur, Kerala India. Ramesha, K.P, Pourouchottamane, R, Kataktalware, MA and Sarkar, M.2007. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues in livestock biodiversity – Indian perspective. In National Symposium on role of animal genetic resources in rural livelihood security at Ranchi, India. February, 8-9, 2007. Pp: 58 – 66.

Author: K.P.Ramesha, 2599, 26th Main, Sector-1, HSR Layout, Bangalore, India. E-mail:

Courtesy: Cow Universe