Rahul Saste at his loose-housing animal shed in Nimblak village of Satara, Maharashtra.
Back in January 2015, when farmgate milk prices had crashed to Rs 18 per litre or less, an unlikely byproduct from his 60-animal farm is what helped Dhanaji Jadhav stay afloat.
“I spend roughly Rs 3.60 lakh a month to maintain the 60 Holstein Friesian crossbreds. At average daily yield of 11 litres, which nets out the effect of some cows producing more and some less or even going dry, my monthly revenue of Rs 3,56,400, at Rs 18/litre, couldn’t even cover my cost,” recalls this farmer from Adarki Budruk village in Phaltan taluka of Maharashtra’s Satara district.
In desperation, Jadhav resorted to sale of the fine manure from the animals, housed in the free-stall barn spread over half-an-acre of his dairy farm. “I had, then, accumulated around 200 tonnes of dried and powdered dung, only a portion of which was being used in my 20-acre land. But with my losses from milk mounting, I decided to sale the surplus manure at Rs 15 per kg,” he notes.
Unlike the dung collected from traditional sheds, in which the animals are kept tied, the manure from free-stall barns — a gated open area, where the cows can freely move around to eat, drink and rest — comes out as a fine powder. Within two months’ time, Jadhav had sold some Rs 3 lakh worth of manure. “It not only kept me going during a most difficult phase of low milk prices, but opened a new avenue of business that I realised was only waiting to be tapped,” he adds.
The use of cattle manure in Indian farms has come down not only due to application of chemical fertilisers, but also quality concerns. In traditional cowsheds, the fresh dung from tied-up animals is manually removed and deposited separately. As it does not get time to dry and is also not spread out properly, there’s little to be gained from application of such poorly-decomposed manure.
Free-stall or ‘loose-housing’ barns, on the other hand, involve keeping the animals loose in gated enclosures. The cows are tied only during milking or for medical treatment. The constant movement of the animals ensures that the manure not only gets spread evenly, but also assumes a fine, powdery consistency. Loose housing barns, moreover, allow for the animals’ urine to be properly mixed with the manure, further increasing its fertilising efficiency.
“Crop yields, whether in sugarcane, seasonal vegetables or fodder, will rise by 20 per cent through a single application of this manure at the time of field preparation. While you may have to apply one tonne per acre for manure that is collected in the traditional way, only half-a-tonne would do if it is sourced from free-stall barns,” claims Jadhav, who set up his loose-housing system in 2004, but realised its market potential just over two years ago.
Rajiv Mitra, managing director of Govind Milk and Milk Products Limited, a private dairy company, estimates that Phaltan taluka alone has 2,000-odd open-housing barns for cattle. Laboratory tests have shown the manure produced from these barns to have higher organic carbon content. Their application helps improve not just the water retention capacity of soils, but even nutrient use efficiency of chemical fertilisers — by making available more of the nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium from them to the plants. Such quality manure can fetch Rs 15 per kg, as against Rs 5 for conventionally collected manure.
In Phaltan, many farmers, now full-time into dairying, are devoting much of their land for captive fodder cultivation. Besides milk sales, they have also taken to marketing of quality manure, for which there is demand – including from strawberry and turmeric growers in nearby talukas of Satara such Wai and Mahabhaleshwar. “I have a monthly manure supply capacity of 15 tonnes currently, whereas the demand would be twice that. And the orders are coming from across the state,” says Jadhav.
Rahul Saste, a nine-acre farmer from Nimblak village in Phaltan, chose loose-housing for his 18-animal herd in 2010 only because of labour shortage. “There wasn’t anybody to regularly collect the dung and keep the shed clean,” he points out. But the real benefits from loose-housing came when Saste started using three out of the six tonnes of manure ‘harvested’ every month from his cows for the fodder grown on five acres of his land. His cows are now exclusively fed this fodder, along with home-prepared feed concentrates. The milk they produce is, therefore, organic, for which the Govind dairy is paying about Rs 38 per litre, as against its procurement price of Rs 30 for regular milk.
Not all farmers, though, can afford to go for free-stall barns, which require a minimum open area of 250 square feet for every animal. But for farmers having open space close to their homes or farms, the investment — including in fencing — is seemingly paying off. Sale of manure has also partly addressed the problem of disposal of unproductive animals, following the Maharashtra government’s comprehensive ban on cattle slaughter and beef consumption. With the market for spent cows practically vanishing, farmers are now being forced to maintain them even when there is no milk to sell. “With loose-housing barns, farmers can sell the manure from these animals. Each of them can give 8 kg daily and generate an income of Rs 3,600 per month at Rs 15/kg. They can be fed plain green fodder, which will not cost more than Rs 2,500 per month,” explains SP Gaikwad, assistant general manager (veterinary services) at Govind Milk.
Farmers, however, do not buy this logic. “At the current rate of Rs 30 per litre, you can sell milk worth Rs 10,000 from a single animal yielding 11-12 litres daily. Why should a farmer devote space for an animal that gives just manure? It has to be both milk and manure,” contends Saste.
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