Sorry, it’s a boy

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Sat, May 18 2013. 12 13 AM IST

The cow chronicles: sorry, it’s a boy
The economics of dairy farming is skewed in favour of the milking cows
Shoba Narayan
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Sarala with Ananda Lakshmi’s newborn calf. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
There is no room for Alfie, the newborn male calf in my milk-lady Sarala’s cowshed. One of the other cows has also given birth—to a female calf, thankfully, which they plan to keep. They cannot handle two calves. A third cow will deliver in a few weeks.
“Where is the space, ma?” asks Sarala, pointing around.
The urban cowshed is tight with cows: a far cry from breezy, grassy pastures. At night, Alfie may get stamped upon by other cows and needs to be kept separately. There is no separate enclosure so they take their chances by leaving the calf with his mother—and a few other cows.
We debate what to do. We are collective owners of a newborn calf and need to build consensus about his future. This is messy because our agendas are different. I want to be involved without interfering. They want to give away the calf. Why not sell him, I ask. They look at me with pity. No local dairy farmer will buy a male calf—of what use is he to him? What about selling to people who have bullock carts? Maybe this male can be used to pull carts when he is older? “This breed is too soft,” says Sarala. “HF (Holstein-Friesian) breeds can’t stand the heat and dust of Indian roads, and pull carts.”
This gives me a perfect opening for a half-hour tirade against imported HF cows and how they are unsuited for the Indian climate. Someday, I tell Sarala, I will convert every single dairy farmer to using and improving local breeds of cows, instead of taking the easy (and stupid, in my view) way out and unthinkingly buying foreign breeds.
“You want extra milk?” asks Sarala at the end of it. I glare at her. Why does it always boil down to extra milk, no pun intended? “Why don’t you take the calf to your village and sell him to people there?” “Will you give me the transport to take him?” asks Sarala. “Po, ma (Get out of here in Tamil). The cost of our transport will be more than what we will get for the calf.”
In villages, she says, where people have grazing pastures, they will simply keep a male calf—like an unwanted widowed aunt or a crotchety uncle that you need to take care of—and send him out to pasture. “We can’t do that in the city.”
Their solution is to take Alfie the calf to a goshala and leave him there. “It is like a cow hostel, ma,” says Sarala. “You leave old or ailing cows there; the ones you cannot manage. They take care of these cows from birth to death.”
I am stunned. “But he is a newborn,” I say. “How can you abandon a newborn calf? How can you take Alfie away from his mother?”
Over the next two days, they talk about the idea; help me get used to it. There is a process, says Sarala. First, they fill out an application form. Then, they show the calf to the local “sait”, a pawnbroker who will make sure that the calf is indeed theirs; that they haven’t stolen him. Only after that can they take him to the goshala and leave him: abandon him.
The word “go” or “gau” means cow in Sanskrit. Shala means shelter or sanctuary. It is indeed a “cow hostel” as Sarala says. Or a cow ashram.
I have heard about goshalas, but only vaguely. Deepa Krishnan, a fabulous tour guide in Mumbai, once showed me a goshala in the heart of the city, beside the Mahalakshmi temple. They are usually operated by the Jain community, but I have seen goshalas affiliated to the Art of Living Foundation and the Hare Krishna temple.
Sarala and Naidu think a goshala is the best place for an unwanted calf. I am torn about whether to influence their decision and if so, how.
One way I can do it is by throwing money at the problem. It won’t take much to subsidize a male calf for a few months, but I doubt that Sarala will use the money I give her to care for him. She will use it to feed the milk-giving cows, and I won’t blame her. All through this blazing summer, Sarala has been talking about how cruel the heat is on these animals. “They are hungry, ma,” she says often, pointing at her herd. A standing cow can look like the most centred animal on earth. You can do yoga for a million years and you still won’t get that still, beguiling quality of its eyes. “Look at the grass. It is so dry.”
The economics of dairy farming is skewed in favour of the milking cows. The newborn calf is lowest in the hierarchy, tolerated because it provides future return on investment. A male calf doesn’t even offer that. Selva wants to keep the calf for at least a week more. He thinks sending the calf away after a week with his mother is “not good”.
Naidu is against this. He says we should make a clean break between mother and child. Longer is riskier. The longer we keep the calf with the mother cow, the harder it will be to wean her; to make her forget her baby once we do take the calf away.
“After two weeks, she will miss her baby even more,” says Naidu. “Once the baby goes, she will develop a fever and perhaps withhold milk throughout the lactating cycle. Best to do it quickly.”
Sarala takes the middle ground. Some dairy farmers, she says, take the calf to the goshala after a single day of colostrum feeding. We have to give the calf mother’s milk for about a week. That will help build his resistance even if we move him away from his mother, she says.
They are all worried about the butchers. “They will come and steal him, ma,” says Naidu. “We have put two locks on the cowshed, but there is no guarantee. They can come at night, break open the lock and take the calf.”
I contemplate keeping Alfie in my balcony. The space is large enough. Once I get the calf up the elevator and through the house, it will be easy. He can stand tied to the water pipe.
“The calf won’t come, ma,” says Sarala. “How will he stay in your balcony without his mother? You’ll have to keep the mother there too.”
A post-pregnancy cow is a huge, moody animal. There is no way I can get Ananda Lakshmi up my lift and through my living room into the balcony.
Sarala clinches my doubts by asking one pertinent question: What will you do with the cow dung? Do you know how to remove it?

Shoba Narayan is considering keeping Alfie in her building. Read about it in the third part of this series.
Also Read | The earlier, four-part cow chronicles

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