Climate stress is trampling productivity in India’s vulnerable livestock sector

As the planet warms, falling milk production and increasing disease vulnerability are threatening the world’s largest livestock population.

With a livestock population exceeding 535 million, India boasts the world's largest farmed animal population.
With a livestock population exceeding 535 million, India boasts the world's largest farmed animal population. But it is under increasingly strain as the world warms. Image: 

Ezhumalai, a 63-year-old small-time livestock farmer from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has seen the  income he generates from his herd of a dozen cattle fall by a half over the past two decades. The decline has pushed him to gradually shift to other allied professions and sell off his cows over the years.

“The feed for the cattle was reduced. My cows fell sick frequently, and their milk yield dropped over the years. For us, cows are like family members. It breaks my heart every time I sell one of my cows,” laments Ezhumalai.

“Only in recent years, I put two and two together that climate change is among the reasons for this,” he reflects.

Ezhumalai’s realisation is not far off the mark. Studies indicate that increasing climate stress will pose a severe threat to the livestock sector in India unless credible measures are promptly implemented. A recent global study published in the Nature Sustainability journal has revealed that India’s livestock systems are the most vulnerable in the world. The exposure to damaging climate extremes in the world’s most populous nation exceed those of other countries by at least five times. This study examined emissions and climate risks associated with livestock systems in 132 low- and middle-income countries.

“Drought and heat stress emerge as two critical hazards. Additionally, many areas are exposed to high rainfall variability,” explains Julian Ramirez-Villegas, the lead author of the research.

“The challenge with the Indian livestock sector lies in the conditions in which animals are kept, resulting in low productivity. By improving these conditions, the vulnerability of Indian livestock production to climate change could be significantly reduced,” he suggests.

“The combination of climate conditions, especially drought and heat stress, poses significant challenges, particularly in India’s productive regions such as the Indo-Ganges basin. Even with a 1.5ºC global warming scenario, which is alarmingly close, models predict over 100 days of extreme heat annually, posing risks to both animals and humans,” adds the researcher.

India’s livestock conundrum

With a population of 1.4 billion, India relies heavily on farming, which contributes over 18 per cent to the country’s GDP. The livestock sector is increasingly becoming a pivotal player in the agrarian economy, as other allied farming sectors experience declines.

Livestock management is deeply intertwined with India’s farming systems, providing livelihoods and sustenance to millions. With a livestock population exceeding 535 million, India boasts the world’s largest farmed animal population.

The country is home to a diverse range of livestock breeds, both indigenous and exotic, encompassing cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry, and more.

As the world’s leading milk producer, India relies heavily on its rural population’s engagement in dairy farming. However, the country’s dependence on livestock is problematic in a warming world.

“Milk-producing cattle are particularly vulnerable to heat stress. These animals thrive within a temperature range of 16 to 25ºC. Beyond this, heat stress hampers their ability to produce milk and reproduce,” explains Dr Amlan Das Gupta, an associate professor at OP Jindal University.

“A comprehensive nationwide study on the precise impact of temperature on milk production and yields is still lacking,” Gupta adds. “Some studies report up to a 50 per cent decline in milk production.”

Experts note that exotic and hybrid livestock varieties are more susceptible to heat stress than indigenous breeds.

Climate stress and global warming exert both direct and indirect impacts on animals, according to Dr V Beena, a senior officer at the Centre for Animal Adaptation to Environment and Climate Change Studies, a recently established body under the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University.

“Heat stress is the primary direct impact, while indirect consequences manifest through alterations in the quality and quantity of forage provided to the animals. This, in turn, can lead to sporadic outbreaks of infectious diseases. Climate change can trigger the emergence and resurgence of such diseases,” Dr Beena warns.

She notes that while some diseases in domesticated animals have been previously documented, their frequency has escalated in recent years due to rapidly changing climate conditions. The compromised immune systems resulting from heat stress exacerbate the animals’ susceptibility to diseases.

“Human intervention has increased. Cyclical patterns due to seasonal changes and livestock lifestyles are disrupted. All of these factors can contribute to the emergence of new variants and diseases. For instance, a sudden surge in vector-borne diseases has been observed in studies conducted in Kerala, with climate stress strongly suspected as a driving factor,” she emphasises. “For every 1 per cent rise in temperature, we observe at least a 10 per cent fall in  livestock production across various categories. In some cases, animals experience a 20-50 per cent reduction in food intake,” Dr Beena concludes.

Navigating the future

Researchers stress that urgent corrective measures are imperative in India to mitigate the climate risks faced by livestock – a vulnerability that could reverberate globally. Additionally, India has been identified as a top investment priority for implementing such efforts.

The sector grapples with challenges including low productivity, inadequate infrastructure, limited access to modern technologies, and disease outbreaks. These issues hinder productivity, exemplified by the fact that the average cattle productivity in India was 1,777 kg/animal in 2019, significantly lower than the global average of 2,699 kg/animal.

“We must prioritise the adoption of more thermo-tolerant livestock breeds. Native breeds are generally more adapted to temperature variations, but their productivity is relatively lower. Therefore, among native breeds, those with higher productivity must be identified and promoted for genetic backup. Rigorous research in this regard is essential,” Dr Beena underscores.

Enhancing animal health, modernising infrastructure, streamlining the supply chain, and optimising the genetic pool are cited as critical imperatives.

“We believe that significant opportunities exist in India to mitigate climate risks. For instance, expanding existing crop insurance programmes to encompass the livestock sector could prove beneficial. Moreover, enhancing animal health and feed quality holds considerable potential to positively impact livestock productivity, adaptation, and mitigation,” Ramirez-Villegas concludes.

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