India testing a new way to deal with stray cattle: Eliminate male bovine before conception
This is likely to solve one of the key problems in rural India ahead of a key elections — stray cattle.
They have gathered for the foundation stone-laying ceremony of Vargikrit Veerya Utpaadan Ikayee of Athihimikrit Veerya Utpaadan Kendra. That’s Hindi for Sex-Sorted Semen Production Unit of Frozen Bovine Semen Production Centre.
Over tea, the minister asks one of his officials to explain to the American visitors how the cow is considered sacred by Indians and not meant for consumption. “ Panditji aa chuke hai,” someone informs just then. Everyone rushes to a spot for a half-hour havan. After the prayers are said and aarti sung by Indians and Americans alike, the minister unveils the foundation stone of the centre. “ Yeh ek krantikari divas hai (Today is a revolutionary day),” says Baghel.
This unit, it is hoped, will help solve one of the key problems that have animated rural India ahead of a key election season — stray cattle. Obsolescence due to mechanisation and a ban on cattle slaughter (and cow-related vigilantism) have meant a collapse in the economic value of cattle. It has caused many farmers to release their cattle, which then wreak havoc on fields, destroying crops.
While cows fall out of favour only once they cease to produce milk, the rising mechanisation has made the male bovine an altogether unwanted farm animal. The UP government’s solution is to make sex-sorted bovine semen available in large quantities, so that most offspring born is female. The foundation stone was laid for the first such unit in UP. Similar facilities exist in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand (likely to become operational in six months), and Pune, Maharashtra (production commenced in October 2018).
“Stray cattle is a big challenge for the entire state. Ensuring that only female calves are born, using the technology, is the only solution to control the population of bulls rendered useless now,” Baghel told ET Magazine. The lab is set to be Asia’s biggest facility for the production and storing of the so-called sexed semen. “By using our IntelliGen sexing of semen technology, we are able to produce only female calves,” said David Raiser, global production director, Genus.
The project, part of the Centre’s Rashtriya Gokul Mission to conserve and develop indigenous breeds, has a 60:40 funding ratio between Centre and states (except hilly states where the Centre bears 90 per cent of costs). The project is in different stages of development in 10 states. Of the Rs 475 crore sanctioned by the Centre, Rs 100 crore has been invested.
Sexed semen is semen engineered to produce offspring of a desired sex (with about 80-90 per cent accuracy). Conventional semen results in a male-female ratio of about 50:50.
Using flow cytometry, a technique used to detect the characteristics of cells, spermatozoa (mature motile male sex cell of an animal) are separated into X (female) and Y (male) chromosome, based on their difference in DNA content. For example, to produce a female calf, Y chromosome is neutralised and only X is put to use.
“Using sex-sorted semen (SSS) by artificial insemination (AI) can be a game changer for India. It will not only address the stray animal issue but also increase the income of farmers,” says Dr Bhushan Tyagi, assistant commissioner, Rashtriya Gokul Mission, a unit under Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture.
Under the scheme, SSS production facilities are being developed at 10 A-grade (technically most advanced) bovine semen stations across the country. India has 56 semen stations. These stations collectively produce 70 million doses, which can cover 25 per cent of the breedable cattle (199 million, according to the 2012 livestock census) in India.
Currently, nearly one-third of animals are bred through artificial insemination and the remaining two-thirds are either bred naturally or left un-bred, according to the Department of Animal Husbandry and Fisheries.
“SSS, ensuring 90 per cent female calves, is the need of the hour in India,” says Dr Harendra Kumar, principal scientist and head of animal reproduction division at ICAR’s Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bareilly, a deemed university. “Still, since it is just taking off in India on a large scale, its aftereffects, if any, remain to be seen.”
The technology is being put to use by farmers in pockets of Punjab, Haryana, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, who mostly use imported semen of foreign species such as Holstein-Friesian (HF) and Jersey. The SSS project under Rashtriya Gokul Mission will undertake production of semen straws of indigenous breeds such as Sahiwal, Gangatiri, Kankrej and Gir that are well adapted to agro-climatic conditions and are resistant to many tropical diseases. This will also help in the conservation and propagation of indigenous breeds.
Gujarat, which signed two MoUs with Genus Breeding India Pvt Ltd and Sexing Tech, US, during Vibrant Gujarat, too, has successfully conducted a pilot project. “We are training veterinary officers for the project. Distribution of straws has already started. Within 9-10 months we should get good results,” says Dr AJ Kachhia Patel, director, animal husbandry, Gujarat.
UP’s pilot project in three districts saw 522 females out of 581 calves — a success rate of 92 per cent . The programme will now be launched in the entire state by providing sorted semen to all veterinary facilities within five months. In the first phase, 3,30,000 straws will be made available. Straws are 0.5 ml of frozen semen. A breeding dose is typically 8 such straws.
Globally, sexed semen technology — developed in 1980s when US Department of Agriculture researchers found they could segregate X and Y sperm from rabbits — is commercially available for dairy heifers (young cows) and beef cattle. The tools are becoming commonplace especially in the US. It is commercially available since 2006 for beef producers in the US. By 2008, sexed semen accounted for about 14.5 per cent of breedings in Holstein heifers and around 2.5 per cent in cows. In 2008, SSS was introduced in Iran’s dairy industry, according to research papers published on the subject. Livestock Improvement Association of Japan also started commercially producing sexed bovine semen 10 years ago, and sexed bovine semen is currently used for artificial insemination (AI) in farms.
Minimum standards for production of bovine frozen semen include karyotyping (preparing genome map that helps in diagnosing chromosomal abnormalities), testing for genetically transmitted diseases, vaccination against certain diseases, a quarantine period of minimum 60 days, thorough physical examination by an accredited official/veterinarian.
Even as key players and government officials are gung-ho about the initiative, global research points to some drawbacks. As sperm concentration in sexed semen straw is far less (one-fifth) than in conventional semen straw and the sorting procedure itself damages the sexed sperm, conception rate is roughly 20 per cent lower than with normal semen.
“Bovine conception rate using AI is just about 25 per cent in India. With lower conception rate using SSS, its reach will be much less,” says Kumar of IVRI-Bareilly. “Its longterm impact will be phenomenal. At the same time, a lot remains to be observed that will take time.” Worldwide, flow cytometry technology has been used to produce pre-sexed offspring in rabbits, pigs, cattle, sheep, horses, rhinos, buffaloes, elk, dolphins, dogs, cats, deer and goats. In India, Frozen Semen Bull Station at Haringhata, West Bengal, reported the first male calf named Shreyas, born in 2011, using (imported) sexed semen.
“But its success is not as per expectations. A lot is under the testing phase in India. If one progeny is born using SSS and it becomes breedable without any disorder, the project will be considered fool-proof for India, which certainly needs a technology like this. Nevertheless, it is beneficial for India facing huge burden of the male cattle,” says Kumar of IVRI.
A single sexed semen straw costs Rs 1,500-2,000 per dose. However, states are making it available at a subsidised rate. “UP will be providing a subsidised rate of Rs 100 in Bundelkhand where the problem of stray cattle is more prevalent and Rs 300 in the rest of the state,” said Baghel. Normal AI (non-sorted) costs Rs 20 per straw. “Doorstep delivery of SSS straw to farmers will also be made available via mobile hospitals,” says Dr KK Chauhan, in-charge of Breeding Centre, UP Livestock Development Board (UPLDB).
There is an argument that since sex-sorted artificial insemination will reduce the suffering of unborn male bovines as they might otherwise be abandoned, this method is both beneficial and ethical. “Farmers will keep cattle only till they are beneficial.
If only cows are produced, farmers will naturally adopt them. SSS technology is a scientific and ethical way as the sex is being determined at the stage of conception,” says Dr Ankit Magotra, assistant professor, Animal Genetic & Breeding Department, Lala Lajpat Rai University of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Hisar.
The animal husbandry minister of Uttarakhand, Rekha Arya — who made news last year for petitioning the Centre to declare the cow “rashtra mata” on the patently false ground that it exhaled oxygen — says the move will go a long way in controlling the stray cattle menace in her state. “Within five months, straws will be made available at all veterinary hospitals. This will be a major tool to control male population and double farmer’s income.” Uttarakhand conducted its pilot in Gairsain, Chamoli, last year that saw 90 per cent birth of female calves. If only females will be born, what about the need for male progeny for future generations?
“Remember demand & supply. When only 10 per cent bulls will remain, their value will again increase in the eyes of farmers,” says Baghel. Also, “If we are using only X chromosome to produce cows, we can use Y in future to produce bulls/ heifers,” says Tyagi of Rashtriya Gokul Mission. “10 per cent bulls are sufficient to keep the population growing,” says Chauhan of UPLDB.
“In Gujarat, we don’t need more than 1,000 bulls at one time. Just as we are using X chromosome to produce cow, we can use Y to produce bulls in future,” says Dr Kachhia Patel from Gujarat. Kumar of IVRI says: “Semen from one bull can be stored for 50 or more years and is capable of producing 1,000 cows. The cryo-preserved straw just needs to be thawed to make it viable.”
According to Livestock Census 2012, the total cattle in the country stands at 190.9 million. Creating awareness among farmers about a technology like SSS is a big task. “It is a time-consuming process. Considering the high cost and expected demand in India, it may take years, if not decades, for this to take off. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction,” adds Kumar of IVRI.