Over the last 10 years, India has witnessed a surge of interest in dairy farming. Thousands of new dairy farms have been opened, with top-of-the-line equipment and the best breeds of cattle. However, fewer than half of these farms proved to be sustainable in the long term. This article aims to asses why many dairy farms fail, and how the causes for failure can be addressed and corrected in the future of a modern dairy farm.
Knowledge of Dairy Farming
The people that have chosen to take up the recent trend of dairy farming can be broadly divided into four groups. First, some locals manage to acquire the financial means to start a new dairy farm. Secondly, there are NRIs who choose to spend their surplus income by investing in the agriculture sector. The third group comprises young urban professionals who grow discontent with their day jobs and seek to return to their farming roots. Finally, the fourth group is made up of unemployed but educated youth from upper-middle-class families seeking an alternative profession. None of these groups have ever had experience in dairy farming before—and knowledge of modern technology and equipment doesn’t go a long way when you don’t have an essential understanding of cattle.
Farming as a Livelihood
Dairy farming, like most other kinds of farming, is not a business but a livelihood. Farming requires knowledge, patience, and to a great degree, passion. New dairy farmers especially fail to understand that they are dealing with live animals, and not machines. Knowledge of project management systems and farming equipment helps—but that alone isn’t good enough.
Small Scale for Big Results
Many high-tech modern dairy farms make the mistake of starting on a huge scale. They construct massive sheds and buy a large number of animals right at the beginning. When you are new to dairy farming and have a large herd, it is very difficult to manage problems. Instead of buying a large herd all at once, you should stagger the procurement of your cattle to maintain a consistent monthly milk yield.
Understanding the Reproductive Cycle
Many new farmers focus entirely on the process of milking and processing, without really understanding the biology of their cattle. Most of them do not know how to detect heat, or that the animal should conceive by the 4th or 5th month after calving. There have even been cases where farms with a large number of lactating cattle did not have a single bull and were dependent on local government veterinary doctors for artificial insemination. This could lead to missing heat cycles, and long periods during which only a few—if any—cows will yield milk. Some farms went 9 to 10 months without a single cow giving milk—and having to feed a large number of non-milk-yielding cows can lead to huge losses in the long term.
Caring for Calves
Many modern dairy farms have failed because the calves were not well taken care of. There have been cases of farms having over 100 lactating animals but only 20-30 calves that managed to survive into adulthood. Caring for calves is extremely important for the long-term well-being of the herd. Female calves are especially valuable to a dairy farm, as they start giving milk within 3-4 years.
Feed and Fodder Management of Dairy Farm
Many farmers provided good feed (dhana) and fodder (grass, hay) during the initial phase of lactation. However, as the milk yield began to decrease after 5 or 6 months, the farmers tended to reduce the amount of feed and fodder that was provided—sometimes so drastically that the animal reduced to half its size. While the amount of feed required is dependent on the milk yield of the animal, it is also dependent on body weight and should never be cut down drastically for any reason. Any nutritional imbalances could cause serious health and reproductive issues in the long term.
Automation and Labour for Dairy Farm
Most new farm owners want to fully automate their farms. Adapting hand-milked cattle to milking machinery is a trial-by-error process that requires time and patience. When it does not work immediately, farmers often simply abandon their milking machines—which is a huge waste of money. This also puts them entirely at the mercy of workers who may quit without any notice. Striking a balance between automation and labor is extremely important for the long-term success of a dairy farm.
Being Present at Dairy Farm
Many owners depended on others to take care of the farm who themselves did not have much knowledge of dairy farming. Dairy farming requires the owner’s attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. Others will not be able to do that for you. If you can’t spend time on your farm (at least till the farm operations stabilize), please do not get into dairy farming.
Long-Term Commitment of Dairy Farm
Many new modern dairy farms are started by people who have surplus cash they can afford to lose, and full-time professions that they can rely on for their main income. When things do not go well—which is often the case during the initial stages of dairy farming—they simply shut down the farms and send the animals to slaughter. For a dairy farm to be successful in the long-term, it is important to push through the initial setbacks and commit to making things work. An easy exit, or a full-time job that demands most of your attention, is an incentive to give up—but treating farming as your source of livelihood or primary passion can help motivate you to make it work in the long run.
It requires time and lots of patience to be successful in dairy farming. The intent of this article is not to dissuade people from taking up dairy farming. It is meant to educate potential dairy farmers on common mistakes so that they can avoid them and be successful in the future.