P K Uthaman

    Till recently the number of Indian cattle breeds was estimated at 26. But the latest calendar of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) on ‘Cattle Breeds of India’, published by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) showed pictures of 30 breeds. The latest addition was a dwarf cattle from Kerala called the Vechur cattle. The Vechur cattle thus became the first among Kerala cattle, all of which were hitherto referred to as nondescript, to get the stamp of approval as a distinct breed from the ICAR. A select group of animals of the same species with distinctive, inheritable characteristics is called a breed. The thirty recognised breeds in India constitute around 20 per cent of the country’s total cattle population. The rest are referred to as nondescript.

    The Vechur cow has now attracted international recognition and attention . The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has listed the Vechur cattle among the Indian breeds in their Domestic Animal Diversity Information System. The World Watch List of Domestic Animal Diversity, also published by the FAO, has listed the Vechur cattle under the category of Critical Breeds, meaning nearly extinct.

    The credit of saving the Vechur cattle from the brink of extinction goes to a conservation programme undertaken by the Kerala Agriculture University (KAU). Had the programme been delayed for a few years, the Vechur cattle would have now been listed among the extinct animals.

    Subsequent to the studies conducted by the KAU, the Vechur cattle are now recognised as the smallest cattle in the world. Before Vechur caught the attention of the scientific community, a Mexican cow measuring one metre in height was considered to be the smallest. The maximum height of a Vechur cow is 91 cms. This diminutive cow, weighing on an average 107 kgs. can give an average yield of 3 litres of milk per day which is the yield of the Mexican too. Proportionate to its body weight, the Vechur cow yields maximum milk in the world.

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Highly Adaptable

    Vechur cow got its ancient name from the village where it is supposed to have evolved. Kerala, a narrow strip of land comprising hills and valleys between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, had a large number of dwarf cattle. The local people had distinguished the Vechur cattle from others by certain well-defined, inheritable characteristics. They apparently preserved the purity of the breed by selective breeding. The extremely small size, low feed requirements, high disease resistant and lovable nature of the cute animals made the Vechur cattle the darling of many a household for the last several centuries. The dwarf cattle were well adapted for the hot, humid tropical climate of Kerala. Vechur bulls, though small in size (maximum height at hump level 105 cms), were very strong and these lightweight animals were used for ploughing marshy paddy fields typical of Kerala.

    Till 1960, Vechur cattle were very popular and abundant in Kottayam, Ernakulam and Alappuzha districts. Then a Government programme of crossbreeding of native cows with exotic bulls for higher milk yield was launched and implemented vigorously since 1960. Maintaining productive, indigenous bulls was prohibited by the newly enacted Kerala Livestock Act, 1961. As a result, the number of indigenous cattle gradually dwindled and by the 1980’s the Vechur cattle became almost extinct.

Conservation Movement

    It was the successful popular movement against the proposed hydroelectric project in a virgin rain forest called Silent Valley which created environmental consciousness in Kerala in the early 1980s. It triggered off conservation action on several fronts. Prof. Sosamma Iype, a teacher of Animal Genetics in Veterinary College, Trissur, under the KAU became concerned about the loss of germplasm of the Vechur cattle . She had vivid childhood memories of the animals. She motivated a group of environmentally-conscious university students to conduct an extensive search for Vechur cows and bulls in Kottayam, Idukky, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Trissur districts. With generous support from local Animal Husbandry Department personnel, libraries, schools, voluntary organisations, panchayats and concerned individuals, it acquired the dimensions of a "Save Vechur Campaign".

    The Vechur Conservation Project was launched in the Veterinary College, Trissur in July 1989 with a small herd of 8 animals including one bull. Subsequently, two dozen animals were added to the original stock. In the beginning the project was funded entirely by the KAU, but soon the ICAR came to its support with a ‘Scheme on Conservation of Germplasm of Vechur Cattle’. The ICAR allotted Rs.47 lakh during 1993-98 for the scheme.

    A vigorous breeding programme was undertaken to produce as many pure Vechur cattle as possible. Embryo-transfer technology was employed to produce more progenies of females with good breed characteristics within a short span of time. Now a nucleus stock of about 135 Vechur cows and bulls is maintained in two farms of the KAU. About 30 field units have also been established with animals supplied from this stock in various parts of the State.

    Detailed characterisation studies of the Vehur cattle has been taken up by the KAU. The acrocentric nature of the Y-chromosome establishes that the Vechur cattle belong to the species of the Zebu cattle (Bos indicus) as different from the European cattle (Bos taurus) which has metacentric Y-chromosome.

    Infant mortality has been found to be almost nil in Vechur cattle under farm conditions. It has also been observed by the scientists of the KAU that these dwarf animals are quite resistant to foot and mouth disease and mastitis, two diseases which play havoc with hybrid cows in Kerala. Compared to crossbred cows, significantly lower incidences of respiratory infections have been reported from Vechur cattle. The gene(s) responsible for these qualities is our insurance for the future. The animal breeders of tomorrow may require this gene to save our cattle wealth from a total liquidation by pests and germs.

    Milk analyses done in the KAU now support the empirical findings of the unknown ayurvedic physicians. The percentage of fat and total solids in the milk of Vechur cows is higher compared to crossbred cows. But a more significant aspect is the size of the fat globules. The mean size of fat globule in the milk of the Vechur cow (3.21 microns) is higher than that of the goat (2.60 microns), but considerably smaller than that of the crossbred cows (4.87 microns) and of Murrah buffalo (5.85 microns). The small size of fat globules means high phospholipid content because of greater surface area. Phospholipids are important in the development of brain and nerve tissues and also play a vital role in the absorption and digestion of fat.

    Since the Vechur cow milk has got higher proportion of smaller fat globules and saturated fatty acids, it would be therapeutically useful in malabsorption syndrome. Thus the Vechur cow milk and its products are suitable for infants and the sick. In general, the Vechur cattle is the ideal choice of a farmer who cannot afford the sophisticated dairy management practices but wants milk just enough for home consumption.