Why Sri Lanka’s dairy industry has languished

Friday, 3 August 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I refer to the interesting article on the dairy sector in Tuesday’s edition of the Daily FT by Charitha Ratwatte.

I would like to give my opinion as to why the dairy industry has languished in an ever deteriorating state, with a reducing national herd and limited growth in milk production.

While being pessimistic on the goal of self sufficiency within a span of a few years, it is possible to get vast increases in production through improvements in productivity which will also improve the profitability of the small-scale dairy farmer and thereby improve his income.

Short-term answers such as importing cattle will only enrich the farms from where we import but we should be looking at the root of the problem. Those who are in control of this industry are well aware how many times cattle have been imported to Sri Lanka over the last 25 to 30 years. None of these imports have had a significant positive impact on the dairy industry.

Milk production is a commercial activity and any commercial activity must be viable, whether it is a rural small farmer or a large integrated farm, I believe there are some important misconceptions that have become clichés in this industry. Farmers do not need ‘handouts,’ they need support in order to make their venture profitable

As mentioned above, productivity of our farmers in general is the issue and our dairy farms are perhaps the least efficient in the world. Unless we get this issue resolved, there can never be growth in milk production.

A successful dairy farmer will have at least four sources of income: Sale of milk; sale of excess female calves; sale of male calves; cattle manure

All over the world herds that perform well have certain norms

n Assume that a cow has a productive life of eight years (in some developed countries this would be much shorter as they retain only the highest productive animals)

n A cow will give a calf every year – 365 days.

n After calving, the cow will give milk for 305 days.

n In a good farm the 60 days before the next calving is used to improve the condition of the cow in readiness for the next cycle of milking.

nA cow can thus produce four male calves and four females during its productive life. Assume one of these out of eight dies, the net result is the herd will grow by 3.5 females and 3.5 males. In this situation the female herd will grow and the males can be used for beef production.

Compare this with the average performance in Sri Lanka (the statistics given may be outdated but the essence of the argument is valid as we do not meet the international norms)

n The life span is shortened for various reasons including disease, unproductive weak animals, and animals being sold to butchers as the farmer cannot afford to keep them.

n The average calving interval in Sri Lanka would be over 450 days

n The average lactation length would be around 250 days

n In the days before calving when the cow is dry and unproductive for such a long period (200 days) the farmer cannot afford to adequately feed this animal. This is in contrast to the situation in a good herd where this is a time when the cow is prepared for the lactation period ahead.

It is clear why the national herd is dwindling:

n The farmer has to wait as much as 200 days without an income.

n The number of calves born falls far short of the replacement requirement and in any case due to pressure on his livelihood the farmer often sells his animals prematurely.

n As the farmer’s income cannot meet his expenses he simply cannot afford to feed unproductive animals and so both the mother cow and thenew born calfhave a poor nutritional status. With this the downward spiral continues.

n Milk production is down both due to low lactation period and lactation interval as well as due to poor nutritional and health status of the cow.

What are the problems that result in this poor productivity?

n Failure of the AI programs to reach the receptive cows at the right time to obtain satisfactory results. This is one of the reasons the calving interval is so long.

n Poor nutritional and health status of the existing herd. This not only impacts on the milk yield but also affects the fertility of the cow resulting again in long calving intervals.

n Unavailability and poor nutritional status of fodder. Fodder grasses are harvested from roadsides in the mid and up country regions and no one will grow high nutrition grasses or fertilise these common lands.

n In the coconut triangle large extents of land, fragmented due to land reform, has left these lands neglected both for the coconut as well as the potential of growing fodder grasses for dairy farming.

n High cost of concentrate feeds.

n Poor housing conditions and milking done in unsanitary conditions resulting in diseases such as mastitis resulting in reduced milk production and poor quality milk.

n Isolated farms resulting in difficult accessibility for the provision of AI, health and milk collection services.

In order to get out of this downward spiral, the farmer and other industry stakeholders need to be supported to correct the critical areas. The most important issues are:

n Improving the nutrition and health of the cattle.

n Obtaining an effective AI service.

n Providing some means to improve the pastures that are used by dairy farmers.

n Encouraging land holders in the coconut triangle who have been left with fragmented small land holdings to develop dairy farms and grow improved grasses on their land.

n Farmer training to make them understand the basics and the importance of obtaining a calf a year. They also need training in housing systems, clean milking practices and so many other areas.

None of the above ideas are rocket science and the list is not complete but the basics have to be done correctly if we are to have viable dairy farms. The question is who can deliver the support to these farmers. The only group that has access twice daily to each and every farmer is the milk collector.

Milk collectors must be empowered and regulated to ensure that they provide a set of planned inputs to the farmers whom they collect from. These collectors must be encouraged and incentivised to become processes.

Other than the large-scale processes, small scale regional collectors can effectively become processors and there are many examples of them. The problem is that no one is interested in making the farmer a viable entity. This is the responsibility of the State but direct intervention by state agencies has proven to be a failure.

They should be the catalysts who work with the collectors (who need to be registered and licensed to carry on their activity) who have the direct contact with every farmer. Therefore the enforcement, regulation and any other programs must happen through collectors/ processors who buy the milk.


I think to reconvert the consumer to liquid milk preference (just as for eggs) we need to go to the schools. Fertile young minds will greatly benefit from the nutrition they receive as well as inculcate in them good nutritional habits!

We need to encourage small regional processors who could be encouraged to set up small scale processing plants. They could be the ones to provide the services to improve farmer productivity and profitability as well. The milk, collected at regional level could feed into a school milk programs. Win-win all around.

These processes will also need to be encouraged to develop products and distribution systems for their own regional needs. Standards must be established and enforced on raw milk quality and of processed products. Quality products will encourage increased consumer interest.

Milk powder will be here for a long time to come not just because of misleading advertising but because that is what fits the consumer’s needs right now. We really need to understand consumption habits and develop products and marketing systems that meet the requirements of our consumers.

In India any milk vendor will have sold out his product by 11 a.m. Rural people without any idea of why it is so have found innovative methods of storing milk without refrigeration. One example is to keep the milk heated at pasteurisation temp in a pot overnight (no thermometers are used). The milk is kept bacteria free and consumed the next day.

While not advocating this as a processing method, we should be looking for innovative and low cost processing and distribution systems, especially for small-scale regional processors.

There is so much more that can be done for this industry if there are dedicated people to serve it. State intervention is needed to correct the issues I have mentioned above. Is there a Kurien in Sri Lanka? I doubt it.

Shiraz Jeevunjee