Small farmers make big contributions: Dairy production in India

Devii Rao, University of California Cooperative Extension Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey counties, recounts a recent trip to India

I recently spent a month in India visiting relatives, watching wildlife, and taking photos of cattle. Cattle are everywhere in India — in rural areas, national parks, cities, even temples. During my visit, I went to the Veterinary College in Bengaluru, which is in the southern part of Karnataka, a state in south India. There, I met with Dr. K. Satyanarayan, professor and head of the Department of Veterinary & Animal Husbandry Extension, and Dr. Jagadeeswary, associate professor at the Veterinary College, Bengaluru. They work for India's equivalent of Cooperative Extension, doing research and working with farmers to improve their operations and their bottom line. I am grateful to Dr. K. Satyanarayan for taking the time to talk with me and for working with me to write the following article:

India is a major agricultural producer and small farmers are essential in providing staples like milk, rice and wheat to people inside India and abroad. Indian farmers produce many fruits, vegetables and spices as well. Dairy products are particularly important in India and are used on a daily basis as an ingredient in most dishes.

Indian Agriculture

In India, 86 percent of agricultural producers are small farmers who may have 2 to 3 acres of land for farming and 2 to 3 cows or 10 to 15 sheep. Most crops (70 percent) are rain-fed. Farmers usually only get one crop per year, two if they get particularly good rain. In Rishikesh, a city in the northern state of Uttarakhand, it is common to see small wheat fields interspersed with a couple of trees. Farmers use the trees to store hay until later in the season when it is needed by their cattle.

Cattle Breeds

Indian cattle are of the zebu type, with a hump over the shoulder and a long dewlap. The scientific name for zebu cattle is Bos indicus. Many Americans are familiar with the Brahama breed of cattle. This breed was actually developed in the United States from multiple Indian breeds (ABBA 2017, OSU 2017).

There are 30 breeds of cattle in India. Some are specifically for dairy (sindhi, sahiwal, and gir [or gyr]), others are draft animals used for ploughing fields or pulling bullock carts (Hallikar, Amritmahal, Khillari), and some are dual purpose (Tharparkar, Hariana, Deoni) (TNAU 2017). Because India is a large country with a diversity of climates, different breeds were developed to survive in different parts of the country. National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) is interested in understanding and improving genetics of cattle and other livestock breeds in India. For more information, check out their website.

Dairy Production

Dairy is the main livestock industry in India. Three of the most important Indian dairy breeds are red sindhi, sahiwal and gir, producing around 10 to 15 liters (about 2.5 to 4 gallons) of milk per day. Water buffalo are just as important as cows for dairy. Water buffalo milk accounts for 52 percent of the milk produced in India. In northern areas like Mumbai, water buffalo are more common, whereas in southern areas like Bengaluru, cows are more common. Buffalos do not do as well in the hot climates of the south because they have very few sweat glands, but they are preferred in the northern part of the country because they are well adapted to the climate, and have a high yield of milk with a good amount of fat.

When consuming dairy products in India, you may be consuming cow milk, buffalo milk or even a mix of the two. Labeling does not necessarily distinguish the source.

Dairy cattle graze on low quality rangeland or crop residue (e.g. rice, corn, wheat). Because of this, Indian extension agents are trying to improve cattle nutrition by recommending a diet that includes 30% of legumes in the total roughage requirement and 2 kg (about 4.5 lbs) of concentrate feed/day for body maintenance. In the case of milk animals, an additional of 400 grams of concentrate per liter (3.3 lbs/gallon) of milk production will also be given. Feed concentrates come in pellet form and should consist of the following:

  • 40-60 percent source of energy (from corn usually or any other cereal)
  • 30-40 percent cereal byproduct like de-oiled rice bran/rice polish/wheat bran which will supply both energy and protein
  • 20-30 percent oil seed cake especially for high yielding cows and growing heifers
  • 2 percent mineral content (major minerals like calcium, phosphorous, sulfur and magnesium and trace minerals like zinc, copper, manganese, selenium and cobalt)
  • 1 percent common salt which supplies sodium, chlorine and iodine
  • If highly proteinaceous leguminous fodder is available, the quantity of concentrate will be reduced. (Every 5 kg [11 lbs] of leguminous green fodder is equivalent to 1kg [2.2 lbs] of concentrates.)


Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF) has had a major impact on the dairy industry in the state of Karnataka. It established a three-tiered cooperative dairy network with the state milk federation at the highest level, then the milk district unions, and the dairy cooperative societies at the village level. More than 2 million dairy producers in Karnataka are affiliated with more than 13,000 dairy cooperative societies. Every village has a cooperative society where producers bring their milk twice a day, every day. These dairy cooperatives are extremely important to poor rural people because if they are involved with the cooperative, they are guaranteed to be paid for their milk. These millions of dairy producers are very small scale, with 2 to 3 cows. Dairy operations with 200 to 300 cows or more are considered a very large and are rare. They are usually near cities and do not participate in the cooperative system.

There is a very small market for goat milk in India, which is sold mainly in the cities. Goat milk is sold through private vendors, not through the cooperative system. Although it is a small market, goat milk producers are paid a high price: 90 to 120 Rupees/liter ($5.08 – $6.77/gallon) for goat milk whereas farmers are paid 30 Rupees/liter ($1.69/gallon) for cow milk.

For additional information about dairy production, check out this great, eight-minute KMF Dairy Tour video on YouTube.

Extension Efforts

Just like the United States, India's agricultural extension program focuses on research and extension to farmers, NGOs, and others involved in agriculture. In addition to typical outreach methods like workshops, newsletters and pamphlets, the extension folks at the Veterinary College, Bengaluru communicate through radio and TV channels. The government of India has launched a special channel exclusively for farmers that telecasts programs for farmers in different languages of the country. Through this channel, local farmers can watch programs on a variety of animal husbandry topics, including how to select a high yielding cow and how to control disease. Indian extension academics have even developed a feed calculator, a mobile application to teach farmers about cultivation practices for cattle fodder and another mobile application that provides information about what new dairy farmers need to know to start an operation. Some farmers cannot read, so in order to reach a wider audience, descriptive images are a key component in these new aps.

Dairy production is an integral part of India's history, culture and economy. Indians use a lot of dairy products in their cooking, including milk, ghee (clarified butter), curd (yogurt), and lassi (liquid yogurt drink). Millions of very small-scale dairy farmers provide the country with its daily dairy needs for tea, coffee, traditional dishes, and sweets.


ABBA (American Brahman Breeders Association). 2017. ABBA History webpage, last accessed Jan. 25, 2017.

OSU (Oklahoma State University). 2017. Breeds of Livestock – Brahman Cattle webpage, last accessed Jan. 25, 2017.

TNAU (Tamil Nadu Agricultural University). 2017. Breeds of Cattle and Buffalo webpage, last accessed Jan. 25, 2017.



Devii Rao

I am the UC Cooperative Extension Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor serving San Benito, Monterey, and Santa Cruz counties.