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Lali's story: Voice of the voiceless

Read a compelling story of Lali, a cow, on her surroundings, concerns, and perceptions

Dr Naveen Pandey, MVetSc (Conservation Medicine)

The welfare of cows needs to be addressed and studied in the rapidly changing economic aspiration of milk's demand and supply. Animal welfare often takes a back seat when economic considerations reign. The so-called organized and modern dairy may neither be organized nor modern. (Pic: Naveen Pandey)


Lying down in the calving box, I heard early morning bells. It was 3 am. Disinclined to move, I stretched my hind legs. The warmth of the dry, clean and soft bedding helped me semi-roll myself without getting hurt. A spacious 12ft X 12ft box, specially designed for calving with sufficient ventilation through windows and ridge vent, was my temporary stay till (where I would stay until) I delivered my fourth baby. The regular barn where my other friends were housed could not have provided facilities that enabled enough care, warmth, safety, and personal space – the requirements for the last week of pregnancy. Mr. Singh was mindful of it. He got me had arranged for me to be shifted to this disinfected calving box two weeks ago.


I’m Lali. I look roan with elegantly pendulous ears. Mr. Kishor Singh, popularly known as Babusaheb, had brought me from Saurashtra in Gujarat to Bodhgaya. He is a gentleman with a kind heart, almost as good as my previous owner, Keshubhai in Gujarat. Babusaheb and Keshubhai took great care to ensure that I was transported most comfortably with adequate breaks for feed, water, rest, and exercise. It was almost four years ago.

I straightened my neck while directing my ear in the direction of the sound of boots. Babusaheb was approaching, exhaling winter fog from his mouth. It was the morning chill of mid-winter. The farm vet followed him. They stopped at the adjacent calving box where Kali was housed. She had delivered a beauteous calf yesterday and had failed to expel her placenta. The 200-acre farm owned and managed by Babusaheb had a veterinary facility of its own. There was a resident vet available to all of us round the clock. His residence was just around (at?) the entrance, next to the veterinary hospital. The Local community of villagers, predominantly marginal farmers with a few cattle in the backyard, immensely benefitted from the veterinary hospital run by the farm. A genuine veterinary facility was difficult to find nearby - apart from our farm. The permanent availability of a vet day and night helped form a strong bond between the local village and the farm. Villagers from nearby could walk to the farm at any time, either with their cattle or a request for the farm vet to visit their cattle. The specially designed mobile veterinary van had all the facilities necessary to treat sick cows in villages. It also had a hydraulic loading system in the back to lift and transport sick cows if the need arose. The veterinary hospital section remained isolated from the rest of the farm to avoid pathogens that could spread contagious diseases affecting us. Small laboratory and radiology units were probably one of the very few functional diagnostic facilities in the entire state, making our farm and hospital privileged and revered. The farm vet attended to Kali in the neighboring box, right to me, eased her from the placenta, which kept hanging but could not be expelled. It was a relief to have bird-proof and rodent-proof buildings that housed the calving boxes. Birds and rodents could harm the calves and the mother as they tend to attack soft parts. Babusaheb had ensured that the buildings remained safe from predators.


My temporary accommodation was in an elevated area of the farm. I loved the slopes which the farm had retained most naturally. It helped drainage excreta and flow of rainwater. It also saved energy for supplying water to different farm units like milking area, heifer sheds, calves units, feed and fodder areas, retired cows zones and bull sheds as water flowed along a gradient. I could hear go-sewaks running around cleaning the cows, milking them and feeding half of the daily concentrate ration before milking. The sound of utensils and footsteps attracted me while it was still dark. The headlights of the pick-up milk van momentarily illuminated my cozy calving box. Babusaheb had always discouraged mechanization and vehicles. A couple of years ago, the entire 200-acre farm was run only on animal power, but with changing socio-economic equations and the demographic profile of rural India, finding enough people to work on the farm was getting stiffer. Automation and mechanization were becoming inevitable and Babusaheb was adopting the middle path allowing moderate mechanization only. He did not bother to be labeled a conservative orthodox, but he always supported scientific research and adopted improved breeding and feeding techniques.


At a farm in the Scottish Highlands (Pic: Naveen Pandey)


The cows were being led to the open area after milking, making splashing sounds as they left the premises and passed through the pool of liquid containing disinfectant at the building entrance. The milking sheds were in the centre of the farm, and ancillary structures and facilities radiated towards the periphery. The concrete floor of the milking area helped clean and disinfect the floor quickly. Tail-to-tail arrangement for cows at the time of milking helped quick milking and easy drainage of excreta. The feeding troughs were used to feed concentrate mixture when milking, where cows would be hand-milked. The curved edges of the feed manger were designed in such a way as to minimize trauma while feeding. The tiled wall surface helped keep the milking barn clean. The milking operations were least disturbed while melodious music was played. Cows, if comfortable, yield more milk than roughly handled and excited cows. Maintenance of clean conditions in the milking barn results in better udder health and milk production that remains wholesome for a longer time. The bulk milk chilling units installed nearby helped immediately cool the surplus milk. The area around the cooling unit was kept absolutely clean, disinfected, and easily accessible. The milk produced was weighed and recorded in the adjoining milk parlor before being sent to the chilling unit.


Prolonged standing on cement floors could probably hurt the joints leading to painful swollen joints and arthritis in the latter part of life. Babusaheb was concerned about it. He believed that we needed soft earthen floors, pasture, and moderate walks to keep our legs healthy. Cows at our farm were not confined or tied down. We were free in that sense. Apart from milking time, when we stood patiently, we moved often at will. Indeed, there was a routine, and the movement was planned and regulated but not closely confined. The practice, however, did not hamper our desire to go for a walk, for walking helped not only our legs; it helped eructation of gases, etc. It kept us in a good mood too. We don’t enjoy confinement. It would be good to add here that we do enjoy socialization, although we don’t log on to Facebook! We tend to develop bonding among ourselves, and we feel disturbed if isolated. Our farm has an isolation pen where sick cows and cows suspected of harboring infection are isolated. Such isolation rarely occurred. Some proportion of cows were routinely retired every year to the adjoining Panjrapol. They could spend the rest of their lives enjoying freedom and socialization without being subjected to any routine of any sort. Not all cows in India are fortunate enough to have retirement homes and are often considered a burden after their productive life is over. The farm had a policy of replacing the retired stock with new cows procured from villages scattered around. This ensured that new blood was entering the farm, and variation of the gene pool was maintained. This was the most crucial factor for the genetic health of the farm.


The bulls at the farm were replaced every third year. There was a system of rotation of bulls wherein bulls were sent at least five hundred kilometers away once they completed three years at the farm. This was to avoid any inbreeding because Inbreeding would reduce the genetic variation and affect the overall health of the farm. To some degree, semen from the best bulls was imported too to increase genetic variation. There was also a facility to collect semen from the best bulls on our farm and freeze the semen but I can’t comment how the bulls thought about it. The breeding bulls were housed separately and were privileged to have a large area to roam, although semi-fortified. They had access to a bull exerciser to keep them fit, a kind of gym! This farm had gained popularity for maintaining the most beautiful stock, and it served different parts of our country by providing outstanding heifers, cows, and bulls.


Inmates at the farm were also lucky because they were not often subjected to irrational use of medicines, unlike cows in other villages. Failure to reproduce or to produce was not confronted with loads of medications and hormonal preparations. Instead, there was a system in place to find out the reason for reproductive or productive failures. Most often, a correction in feeding and management would correct the problem. In a few cases, medicinal help was needed. Babusaheb ensured that the male calves were periodically distributed to the farmers who still used animal power for farming operations. He considered that 300 animals could comfortably live on the 200 acres farm, though.


From the ventilating window on my high pen, I could see the herd of cows freely moving on the pasture down the slope. Those were the cows that had passed their productive phase and could no longer bear calves. They welcomed the Sun as morning rays fell on their bodies, causing them to glow like fresh oranges. There was a large area dedicated to the retired cows, and very few men monitored them. Two large sheds at the two ends of the pasture land were all needed and used apart from few water joints scattered around. They moved at will, using the shed at night to protect them from the cold in winter but enjoyed remaining out in the Sun during most of the day. They were never, ever chained. They had a farewell life that could be best imagined for individuals who have fed and served humans for generations. They were truly blessed.


A mother enjoys the company of her calf in a mango orchard in Uttarakhand. The positivity of her surroundings is obvious (Photo: Naveen Pandey)


From the other window, I could see the farm entrance where the veterinary hospital, vet’s residence, and a small temple were located. The villagers had started gathering with their animals for the vet to attend them. I could see a few devotees entering the temple and proceeding to see some of the cows they adored. The access to outsiders was limited to some sections of the farm only. Very often, people came with their children and family members to feed the cows and say thanks. Obviously, the younger generation did not share the same affection and gratitude as the elder folks. Some of the kids visiting the farm saw cows for the first time as they hardly had any association. It was good that our farm allowed them to see us in a setting that was very close to our natural set-up. We brought a smile to every human being who entered or farm without exception. Behind the veterinary hospital, the interpretation centre had a museum that showcased snaps of some of the high-yielding and attracting cows of the farm, including my daughter, Shyama. Laurels that we brought from various cattle fairs in India and abroad were displayed in an orderly and dignified fashion. It also had a small theatre where movies were screened for visitors and students depicting how cows have helped humanity survive thousands of years of civilizations and famines. The movies also highlighted the threats we faced in modern times like plastics choking the guts of cows, pollution, shrinking space, and tough competition for feed from human beings.


Children from nearby villages and those of the go-sewaks helping cows in the farm had started gathering in the small school which Babusaheb had built next to the temple. He always thought that people who served cows needed to be looked after well, and their kids got a good education. Lack of schools around the farm had also been a reason for building a primary school. The school building also doubled for vocational training programs to train the youth in scientific animal husbandry practices to make a living.


The lush green pasture and fodder-producing units were properly planned, designed, and maintained. To keep the health of the pasture at its best, a rotation policy was followed so that year-round pasture, free from worms, was available to all of us; especially the lactating cows needed adequate green fodder. Bamboo dividers kept us away from breaking the vegetation, which was designed for healthy fodder. The excess grass was cut and converted into hay and silage depending upon the season and stored in such a manner to minimize loss of nutrients and to prevent contamination from rodents and chemicals. The feed storage buildings were all designed to stop rodents and dogs from gaining entry, and measures were undertaken to stop moisture spoiling the feed.


Morning rays had started reflecting from the black shining surfaces of solar panels. The entire farm depended on solar energy, which made the farm almost self-sustainable as far as energy consumption was concerned. I felt it give a nice look too as all the buildings reflected light. I wondered if it would help during summer by reducing the amount of heat absorbed by the roof, thus keeping the buildings cooler. Alternately, it could have been causing increased heat as black surfaces do absorb more heat. I cannot be scientific about it, but I loved it. The electricity generated not only helped illuminate the cows’ premises, it even provided electricity to office buildings, feed chaffing units, veterinary hospital, and staff quarters. The biogas plant located behind in one corner accessible by bullock carts produced a good amount of energy. A standby generator was installed for any emergency, especially to pump water to the overhead tanks from wells and tanks fed by the rainwater harvesting ducts. Two features which we, the cows, loved most were a) plenty of shed-providing trees, along with the buildings and scattered around too, some of which were fruit-bearing trees attracting a variety of birds and b) three ponds, almost naturally built along a gradient which stored water even during summer months. Most of the trees were indigenous; some existed even before the farm was built, and many of them were later planted. Nothing satisfies more than chewing the cud under the shed of a big tree when the wind blew freely, and egrets removed parasites from all over our body.


We, the cows, firmly believed that we produced wholesome and healthy milk if five freedoms of animal welfare were met with, namely, a) freedom from hunger and thirst- by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain total health and vigor, b) freedom from discomfort- by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area, c) freedom from pain, injury or disease- by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment, d) freedom to express normal behavior- by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of other cows and e) freedom from fear and distress- by ensuring conditions and treatments which avoid mental suffering. From my experience at the farm, I could vouch that Babusaheb ensured that we had all five freedoms.


As my delivery time drew close, I kept looking at my belly, turning my neck backward repeatedly. It was soothing to feel that my baby would be born into a farm where cows were well looked after and respected, not only while they produced milk but even when their productive life was over. Eyes closed, I was visualizing my baby’s beautiful eyes, pendulous ears, curved forehead, nice dewlap, slender tail, and shining coat when I heard Babusaheb walk into the shed. His pleasant eyes reflected love and compassion. I could tell that he adored all of us. As he approached me, I stretched my neck to reach him, and he took my head in his broad palms, passing his hands under my neck. It soothed and comforted me. The cows were domesticated thousands of years ago, and yes, we loved the human touch and demonstration of affection.


Babusaheb and I, both with moist eyes, were dreaming about the beautiful young soul which was about to come into our lives in a few days.


(Dr Naveen Pandey serves The Corbett Foundation as Deputy Director and Veterinary Advisor and can be reached at naveen.vet@gmail.com)

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