To make India’s cows yield more milk, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has said it will embark on a year-long project to map and analyse the genomes of at least 40 local breeds of cattle. India is the world’s largest producer of milk, due partly to importing European cows and cross-breeding them with local varieties as well as a successful decades-long programme to source milk from small farmers via cooperatives. However, the milk productivity of its cattle, ranging from 2-4 kg a day, is much lower than the 25-38 kg a day of cattle in the U.S., Europe or Israel. Officials in the biotechnology department told The Hindu that the National Institute of Animal Biotechnology in Hyderabad — a DBT-funded organisation — would sequence the genetic structure of several strains of cattle and then take steps to ensure that these cattle were bred and popularised.
India is home to the largest cattle population (13.1 % of world’s cattle population) in the world which constitutes 37.3 % of its total livestock. Several of these varieties have evolved in varied ecological zones while adapting to a harsh native environment, while being a repository of unique genes that may be useful in developing resistance to tropical diseases and external parasites. So far there are 60 local, eight regional trans-boundary and seven international trans-boundary cattle breeds from India, though barely a tenth are maintained for milk production such as Sahiwal, Gir, Rathi and Sindhi, according to an analysis of the genetic diversity in Indian cows by Rekha Sharma and colleagues in the journal BioMed Central Genetics, in June 2015.
‘Make use of technology’
“We have usually relied on foreign breeds for our milk production,” said Union Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan at a press conference. “We must use technology to improve our local varieties,” he said. Having better breeds would help identify the susceptibility of cattle to disease, their resistance to heat and drought and improve economic prospects for small and marginal farmers, he added.
The project is likely to cost Rs. 50 crore to Rs. 60 crore, said an official, and would use the services of private genome-analysis companies. After sequencing, the department hopes to be able to develop a device, called a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) –array that can be used to detect pieces of genetic material known to contribute to high yield. “We aren’t doing something that hasn’t been done before,” said Mohammed Aslam, a senior DBT official, “but these chips will make identifying good animals faster.”
For its programme, the DBT will also coordinate with institutes of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, who have institutes that specialise in cattle breeding, to identify appropriate animals. “All other countries have sequenced the genomes of their cattle such as the Holstein Friesian (A Dutch breed known for its yield and also cross-bred with Indian varieties),” said an official, “but we’ve not done so for our own cattle. We need to sequence about 400 animals at least. After cattle, we’ll move on to chicken.”