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Milk matters


Milk has come into focus recently due to murky circumstances surrounding the alleged presence of the contaminant DCD in imported milk powder. The use of DCD in pastures, as an anti-nitrification chemical in New Zealand is scientifically quite understandable.

Milk consumption in Sri Lanka falls far short of that in many developed countries. This is due in some measure to the fact that dairy products and milk-containing confections are not widely consumed by our people. There is an obvious need to increase numbers and productivity of dairy cattle. At the same time, there is a considerable reduction in the demand for beef. So, it seems that we need to increase the population of cows while not needing too many bulls. Our need for draft and farm animals is less with increased mechanization.

Unfortunately, nature does not provide for such gender discrimination. For every female calf, there is a corresponding male. The genetic mechanism governing this balance resides with the male; sperm falling into male-producing and female-producing classes in equal numbers. Several decades ago, hope was kindled by experiments which suggested that the sperm could be separated by subjecting the semen to an electric field when the male and female types migrated to the differently charged electrodes (electrophoretic separation). Interest waned because of difficulties in preserving sperm viability during this process. However, there has recently been a revival of interest in this prospect. Our veterinarians would no doubt be following this work. Since developed countries are more interested in males for beef production, we may even be able to cheaply procure unwanted female producing semen.

Temperate breeds of cattle developed for high milk yields, produce amounts as high as ten times that of our native animals. Direct importation of such animals as is currently being done from Australia, is often unsuccessful due to problems with climate adaptation. It is also claimed that they succumb to parasitic infestations to which our breeds are more tolerant.

Therefore, five or six decades ago, local experts suggested a breeding programme designed to secure higher milk production while preserving the resilience of the local breed. The technique suggested was a "rotational cross-breeding programme" where local cows were inseminated with sperm from Temperate breeds in a particular sequential pattern. The CRI too participated, but the programme was abruptly terminated although years of work indicated some progress.

In contrast, Israel has successfully directly introduced animals bred in Temperate regions and secured astonishing milk and beef outputs..

The second issue is the need for intensively developing appropriate pastures for high productivity. Considering that our climate broadly provides year-round growing conditions for grasses to grow, Tropical regions should be exporting milk to Temperate regions rather than the other way round as at present. 

Ironically but for some reasons, efforts at pasture production have largely focused on the Low Country (especially coconut lands) while the better prospect might be to exploit the opportunity provided by poor performing Up-Country tea lands. Resident labour provide impressive proof of the greater productivity of cows in the cooler up-country climate.

Milk powder is produced as a way of preserving milk when production exceeds the immediate demand for liquid milk. This was also the reason why we heard about "butter mountains" in some Temperate countries. It is unintelligent to consider milk powder as part of a diabolical plot to harm our children! It is universally accepted that breast milk is best, followed by fresh cow’s milk. However when these too options are impractical, mothers of infants have no choice but to resort to powdered milk - in spite of the near prohibitive cost, 

The endeavour to achieve self-sufficiency in fresh milk is entirely laudable if concurrent actions to provide chilling arrangements and to prevent adulteration, often with unclean water are also put in place. Recent advertisements claiming figures for cattle populations in the Provinces invite scepticism. We are used to fancifully inaccurate claims in official data!

However the shortfall in supply of fresh milk is so large that Sri Lanka can go for expansion of production with no imminent fear of over-production.

In surveying available information, I was astounded to find that India is at the top of the list of exporters of beef – in some years outstripping Argentina, Australia and the US! Apparently, this is largely buffalo meat.

Dr. U.Pethyagoda

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