Cover Story

Milking the holy cow

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Holstein Friesian cows inside the rotary at a dairy farm in Pune. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

There is no way of producing milk profitably in a commercial venture if unproductive cows are retained. If one is serious about not killing cows, one must stop consuming cow milk and cow milk products.

In recent times, especially after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed the government at the Centre in 2014, cow slaughter has become an important issue. The cattle slaughter ban enacted in the State of Maharashtra in 2015 is an example of the trend in the country.

In addition, there has been a lot of hysteria whipped up in speeches made by political figures against cow slaughter and the possession, sale, and consumption of beef. Given that Hinduism considers the cow sacred and prohibits its killing (it is important to note that this prohibition is only for Indian cow breeds, not for foreign breeds or for buffaloes), this has led to extremely violent and fatal consequences, such as the killing of a Muslim in the town of Dadri on the suspicion that he had killed a calf and was eating its meat. There is also the more recent incident in Una in Gujarat, where Dalits who had dead cows in their possession for skinning were brutally beaten up by a mob.

But is the logical conclusion to this hysteria—a complete ban on the killing of cows—sustainable? Is it compatible with the widespread popularity and consumption of milk and milk products? Most Hindus are comfortable drinking cow milk but find the eating of beef abhorrent because of the popular impression that milk is obtained in a non-violent way, whereas beef is obtained by killing a cow.

What this article shows is that the modern dairy process is inherently violent and that it is impossible to produce milk in a modern commercial venture without killing cows. And therefore, if killing cows is anathema to Hindus, they need to stop drinking cow milk and stop consuming related products such as butter, ghee, curds, cheese, khoya and paneer.

Process of milk production

Most non-farmers are blissfully unaware of how milk is actually produced. A cow, like a human female, produces milk only when it gives birth, to feed its calf. Humans divert this milk for their own consumption by depriving the calf of its mother’s milk. Without focussing on the cruelty involved in this act, let us focus purely on the economic consequences of the biology of cattle.

A female calf has to be anywhere between two and three and a half years of age before it can give birth. The actual age depends on the breed, and is called the age at first calving. Once it gives birth to a calf, it can keep giving milk for between eight and 10 months, depending on the breed. This period is referred to as the lactation period. The amount of milk produced in this period is called the lactation yield and is usually reported as kilograms of milk per lactation. After this, the cow needs some rest before it can give birth to another calf. This is called the dry period, which usually lasts two to three months. This rest is needed because otherwise the cow will be too tired and produce too little milk in her next lactation. The period between two births is called the inter-calving period. The number of calves that a cow can produce in her life, and hence the number of lactation periods, again depends on the breed.

Characteristics of different breeds

Many breeds of Indian cattle have been bred for millennia for milk production. Some of the important breeds are Gir, Ongole, Kankrej, Deoni, Hariana, Tharparkar, Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Vechur, Red Kandhari and Rathi. There are many other breeds which are specialised as draught animals, since farmers historically used cattle for ploughing, transportation and other tasks.

In recent decades, Indian farmers have cross-bred Indian cows with foreign breeds. The biggest reason for introducing Western breeds such as Holstein Friesian (HF) and Jersey is that their milk production is much higher than that of Indian breeds. On the other hand, the Indian cows are much better adapted both to the heat and the diseases in India. Many Indian cattle breeds are also very flexible in terms of food requirements; they often survive on foraging. HF cows come from the cool temperate climates of Europe and hence cannot handle the heat of India; as a result, in the summer months, they require air-conditioned enclosures, something that is not easy for small farmers to afford. Another advantage of Indian breeds is the small size of newborn calves, which means fewer infant mortalities. An advantage of HF cows is that the calves are ready to give birth by age two, which is much earlier than calves of Indian breeds, which can only give birth at three or three and a half years of age and are hence unproductive for a longer period of time than Western breed cows.

Table 1 shows the milk production characteristics of several popular cow breeds in India. It is hard to get precise numbers as different sources give different ranges. These numbers should only be used as a guide to judge relative performance, not absolute yields. When a range is shown in the table, the lower number indicates the production in a village setting and the upper number indicates the production in a commercial dairy farm. The table very clearly shows the attractiveness of foreign breeds such as the Jersey and HF for the Indian farmer.

Fate of unproductive cows

A cow has a natural lifespan, if properly taken care of, and in the absence of predators, of between 15 and 25 years. The productive life of a cow in a dairy, however, is anywhere between four and five years (as in the case of HF cows) and 10 and 11 years (in the case of Indian cows). Since after this time the cow does not give birth to calves and does not produce milk, it is worthless as a business investment.

What happens to this “worthless” cow? Usually, it is sold to the butcher and slaughtered. This is what happens in the West. It is simply not economical for a dairy farmer to continue feeding this cow and taking care of it for the rest of its natural life, which may be up to another 10-14 years, with no economic benefit.

What does the new emphasis on banning all forms of cow slaughter do to the economics of dairy farming?

Let us look at a case study which has been prepared by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) ( to help people who are considering starting a dairy understand the economics of dairy farming. This study assumes that the dairy farm will have 10 cows and explains the costs involved. (There is also an illustration with 20 cows.) Table 2 shows the total figures at the end of this seven-year case study using the numbers provided year-by-year at the above site.

The numbers show that the total net profit from this dairy over seven years is Rs.11.6 lakh. What is interesting is that of that Rs.11.6 lakh, Rs.5.5 lakh, or 47 per cent, comes from selling old animals. The only reason someone buys an unproductive cow is for slaughter—for the beef and leather. As this example clearly shows, banning the slaughter of cows will result in a loss of nearly half the profit of the dairy.

But this is not all. If the dairy cannot sell the animal, what does the farmer do with it? If he has to feed the cow until it dies naturally, what is the cost? This can be seen from the total food cost in the table, which is Rs.40 lakh for 10 cows over a seven-year period. Therefore, the cost of food per cow in this seven-year period is Rs.4 lakh. The normal productive period of a cow is seven years. After that, they are sold off, according to the assumptions in the NDDB calculation.

Now, for a cow that is not productive, the dairy need not spend so much on its upkeep. So, let us assume that they would only spend one-fourth of the normal feeding cost of a “milking cow” for an unproductive cow. That would mean Rs.1 lakh for a seven-year period for a single unproductive cow.

If we assume that the adult life of a cow is between three years (when it first calves) and 15 years (when it dies)—in other words, it spends 12 years in the dairy, of which only seven years are productive in giving milk —this means five years of its adult life are wasted. (The first three years as a calf are already accounted for in the economic analysis presented earlier.) A cow, therefore, will spend five years of its life as an economically unproductive animal in the dairy farm. Since we are considering 12 years, we need to look at two seven-year periods of the earlier analysis. Since this is a 10-cow farm, the cow-years that are wasted over two seven-year periods total 50. Measured in seven-year periods, that is 7.1 cows (50/7) that are unproductive in two seven-year periods, or roughly 3.6 cows per seven-year period, it costs Rs.3.6 lakh to feed over seven years.

Deducting both the Rs.5.5 lakh that the farmer would have earned by selling the animals, which he cannot because of the beef ban, and the Rs.3.6 lakh that the farmer would have to spend to feed the animals, his net profit over seven years comes down to Rs.2.5 lakh from Rs.11.6 lakh, or less than 22 per cent of the original profit. It should be obvious from this illustration that running a dairy operation with the sale of old animals prohibited is economically unviable.

The fact that the NDDB illustration provides for the sale of old animals means that they know very well that a dairy operation cannot be sustainable unless old cows are sold for slaughter. How does this reconcile with the laws in so many States of India that ban cow slaughter?

The answer, most likely, is that prior to the BJP coming to power at the Centre in May 2014, cow slaughter laws were never followed to the letter. The intent, that one must not raise cows for beef, was respected. Everyone knew that dairies could not be profitable if the slaughter of old, unproductive cows was banned. Therefore, a cow was allowed to be killed so long as a certificate could be obtained from a veterinarian that the cow was no longer capable of giving milk. This was the rule followed in most places in India. Because India is a vast country with a lot of people drinking milk, this meant also that India became the world’s largest beef producer. But this could not be openly admitted for political reasons, so the beef that was exported was claimed to be buffalo meat instead of cow meat.

There are two other alternatives for an economically useless cow. One is to simply abandon it, in which case it will starve and die. While the dairy farmer loses the income from selling the cow to the butcher, at least he saves the cost of feeding an unproductive cow. This has happened since the ban on beef took effect in Maharashtra and many other places. The cows now die an agonising, slow death from starvation because they have no regular source of food.

Gaushalas: Corrupt and cruel system

The other alternative, which the government is advocating, is to donate the old cow to what is known as a gaushala, a home for old cows, maintained by private donations and government grants. This is explicitly specified in the “National Code of Practices for Management of Dairy Animals in India”, a document developed by the Narendra Modi government in October 2014. It has a section titled “Unwanted Animals”, which makes for quite amusing reading because of how unrealistic it is.

For instance, it says about Holstein Friesians, which are productive only for about two years out of their 15 or more years of natural life, that “special care must be taken to ensure that their nutritional and welfare needs can be met when they are no longer required on the farm”—a sure way to bankrupt the dairy farmer by asking him to care for it for more than 10 unproductive years.

The only option this document sets out for an unwanted animal is the gaushala. However, there are many problems with the gaushala solution.

First, there are very few gaushalas in the country. There are an estimated 4,000 gaushalas in India. A typical gaushala might have a few hundred to a thousand or more cattle. This computes to about four million cattle in all the gaushalas in India. Compared with the total population of 123 million cows, 92.5 million female buffaloes, and a total of nearly 300 million cattle in India (male and female, cows and buffaloes), this is pathetically inadequate.

Second, the entire gaushala system is corrupt to the core. Gaushalas receive both private donations and government funding to take care of cows. The operators of most of them, however, use this largesse to enrich themselves and make a fast buck. They do not take care of the animals. The recent news about 500 cows dying in a gaushala in Rajasthan is not the exception; it is the rule.

In an article written in Andaman Chronicle in February 2012, the current Union Minister of Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, made the following observations, based on personal experience (and said that “This is the story of 75 per cent of the gaushalas in India”):

  • Authorities routinely sell the old cows in their care to butchers.
  • No proper records are kept.
  • Only cows that can still give milk are taken care of. The rest are ill-treated.
  • The proceeds of the sale of milk and animals are pocketed by committee members.
  • In many gaushalas, animals cannot live for more than a few days because of the horrible conditions.
  • Animals die of starvation, overcrowding, and filth.
  • Incredible cruelty is meted out to animals, such as dragging them by their feet using tractors and dumping them into pits where they died, unable to move because of broken legs.
  • Part of the land given to gaushala committees by the government for free for running the gaushala is diverted to build commercial complexes, marriage halls, and residences for the committee members.
  • Animals die because of contaminated food.
  • Government funds, instead of being used for the animals, are embezzled.

These, and many more observations, were based on her personal observations of gaushalas in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Haryana and Gujarat (

The recommendations in the “National Code”, therefore, are completely out of touch with reality. It is strange that the Modi administration is recommending that old animals be put in such a horrible, cruel system which is also unbelievably corrupt, and claiming that this way of dying in agony is preferable to a quick death at the butcher’s hands. Furthermore, it is strange that an administration that came to power on the promise of reducing corruption is hell-bent on putting taxpayers’ money into these corrupt gaushalas. The most humane thing that one can do for cows is to shut down most of these gaushalas. The rot runs so deep in most of them that reforming them is impossible.

Fate of the bull

What of the male, the bull? In olden days, Indian farmers used bulls as draught animals. Several Indian breeds are very hardy and strong, and they can work hard without consuming too much food in hot conditions. They were used in various tasks on the farm, such as tilling the soil, grinding oilseeds and transporting harvested crops and hay. But with the introduction of mechanisation in India, the usefulness of bulls has greatly declined. The main reason is the much higher efficiency of the tractor. A plot of land that takes a pair of bullocks a whole day to till can be tilled using a tractor in a mere two hours.

The Centre for Sustainable Agricultural Mechanisation (CSAM) of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) published a report titled “Trends of Agricultural Mechanisation in India” in 2014 ( Table 3 is obtained from data provided therein and shows the diminishing utility of farm animals in Indian agriculture.

It can be seen from Table 3 that in the last 40 years, the share of draught animals in Indian agriculture has dropped from 45 per cent to 5 per cent; in the same period, the share of tractors has gone up from nearly 7 per cent to almost 46 per cent. The share of electric motors has also gone up from 14 per cent to nearly 27 per cent in the same period. Even the share of manual labour has gone down from 15 per cent to 5 per cent. Manual and animal labour have been replaced by mechanisation. Thus, bulls have lost their central importance in Indian agriculture as draught animals.

While small farmers often cannot afford tractors, and many still use bulls, they have started renting tractors from tractor parks, which is more economical than owning tractors.

However, bulls have historically had another use in the context of dairy farms. They were needed to impregnate the cows year after year. But this has also changed because in place of farms having dedicated bulls in the dairy to do this job, the current best practice in dairy farms is to use artificial insemination. There are a few farmers who own prize bulls with highly valued semen, and most dairies buy semen from them to artificially inseminate cows. Some such bulls are worth crores. But they are probably one in 10,000 or rarer.

So what do dairies do with the now-unproductive male calves? They are usually secretly sold to butchers who then kill them and export them as veal. This is usually done before the calf is six months old, so that the meat is tender. Veal is eaten abroad as a delicacy. What this means is that 50 per cent of all calves are killed because it is uneconomical to keep them alive.


In ancient India, every family probably owned cows since the society was agrarian and used cattle as farm labour as well as for producing milk. In an age without mechanisation, bulls were highly valued as the main source of agricultural labour. There was, thus, no need for commercial dairies and no need for modern dairy practices. Each cow provided enough milk for the family and probably also for its own calf. There was no need to kill male calves, and cows could be used to do manual labour even in old age. Thus cow slaughter was not an issue.

In modern times, we need large dairies to provide milk for our industrialised society in which only a few farmers have cows. This change has necessitated the adoption of modern dairy practices, which make it necessary to slaughter cows that are no longer capable of calving and hence producing milk. In addition, because of the use of machines which are much more efficient than bulls, bulls are no longer needed for agricultural labour and hence need to be slaughtered as calves to make dairy operations economical. Bulls are not needed to produce calves either, because of artificial insemination.

Without a careful consideration of these economic realities, the BJP governments at the Centre and in the States where they are in power are mindlessly enacting bans on the slaughter of all cattle. The Maharashtra cattle slaughter ban, for example, can only have the effect of making dairy farming uneconomical in Maharashtra. This means that soon cow milk will be impossible to get in Maharashtra and people will have to switch to buffalo milk.

One might wonder about the fate of foreign breeds like HF and mixed-breed cows. Technically, these are not “Indian” cows, and so they do not enjoy the religious sanctity that Indian cows do. The magical properties that are often claimed for the milk of the Indian cow are not claimed for the milk of imported breeds. However, the language of cattle slaughter bans does not specify breeds, and so, effectively, the bans also cover Jersey and HF cows and cross-breeds with these cows. This means there will be a huge drop in milk production, because most large dairies use HF cows for high yields of milk. The yield of buffaloes is nowhere near the yield of breeds like the Jersey or the HF. For instance, the Murrah breed is a very popular milking buffalo. However, its yield per lactation is at best around 4,000 kg, compared to a Jersey’s yield of 6,000 kg or an HF’s yield of around 9,000-10,000 kg. This will cause a serious shortage of milk in India, at a time when India needs to greatly increase its milk production to meet the needs of its population.

Cow slaughter is a very emotional topic for Hindus. But Hindus need to understand that in modern society, one cannot produce milk without slaughtering cattle. Milk is a bloody business and requires farmers to murder cattle for economic operations. Old cows and young male calves are waste products in modern dairies. The only alternative to slaughtering them, which the Indian government is proposing, is the use of gaushalas funded by the state.

However, in practice, the gaushala system is corrupt to the core. The operators of these gaushalas siphon off the money, treat the animals very cruelly, and even routinely sell them off to butchers, which is what they were created to prevent. It would be better to shut down most of the gaushalas and let the animals die a quick death in slaughterhouses.

It is easy to say, without considering the practical implications, that all cow slaughter should be banned. But the reality is that if Hindus do not want to kill cows, they should stop drinking cow milk and consuming cow milk products.

Seshadri Kumar is an R&D Chemical Engineer with a BTech from IIT Bombay and an MS and a PhD from the University of Utah, U.S. He writes regularly on political, social, economic, and cultural affairs at

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