TN faces another outbreak with shortage of cattle feed, exposed vets

With livestock constituting almost half of total agricultural output, the state seems to have done enough neither for cattle nor for veterinarians

Veterinarians fear that halting of vaccination drive for cattle may lead to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Photo: PTI (representational)

Not only doctors attending to COVID-19 patients are facing shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), but also veterinarians — at least in Tamil Nadu. With milk and meat coming under essentials during the lockdown, treatment of diseases in cattle and livestock is inevitable. A halt in the vaccination programme adds to their woes as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) must be kept at bay in summer.

According to recent data from the state’s animal husbandry department, Tamil Nadu accounts for 4.56 per cent of India’s livestock population, 4.39 per cent of milk production and 7.88 per cent of meat production. The state’s livestock population accounts for 45.62 per cent of its total agricultural output, whereas the national average is only 28.82 per cent. As per 20th National Livestock Census, the state has 95.16 lakh cows.

With such a great resource, the state should have taken extra measures to ensure the healthiness of cattle. But it seems to have done enough neither for cattle nor veterinarians. “Even during the lockdown, veterinarians across the state are on high alert to ensure that cattle are in good health,” says Dr S Veeramani, state president, Tamil Nadu Veterinary Assistant Surgeons’ Association.

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Veterinarians are still carrying out all day-to-day activities like deworming, artificial insemination and castration of bulls. Only the vaccination programme has been stalled, he says. In most districts, the government has not provided veterinarians with masks or sanitisers. So, they are prone to come in contact with persons infected with COVID-19.

“We don’t even ask for N95 masks. At least, provide us with a normal one. In many places, veterinarians have been washing their masks and using them again,” says Veeramani.

In summers, FMD — a viral disease — affects cattle. It lasts up to one week and creates blisters in the foot and mouth of the cattle, tiring them out. The animals also lose weight and give lesser milk. The disease can spread to other cows easily and to prevent it, the cattle are vaccinated once in six months. In Tamil Nadu, the last vaccination drive was held in December 2019.

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“We should have vaccinated cattle last September itself. But due to a delay in the arrival of the vaccine, we did it in December,” says Veeramani. So, we need to start the first round of vaccination in May, he says, adding that the lockdown has affected the vaccination drive. Starting this year, only ear-tagged cattle will get vaccinated. But the government has not given enough ear tags,” he says.

“Usually, we set up camps to carry out vaccination drives. In remote areas, veterinarians visit the houses of cattle owners and vaccinate the cows. But the government has restricted us from visiting houses due to COVID-19 outbreak,” says Veeramani.

He fears that halting of the vaccination drive may lead to an FMD outbreak. “There are no cases until now. But if there is an outbreak, we need to do ‘ring vaccination’ to all the cattle that are in a radius of 8 km from the epicentre of the outbreak,” said Veeramani.

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Due to the lockdown, owners of hybrid cows have begun facing difficulty in procurement of feed. “Native breeds are fed grass, hay and straw. But hybrid ones need special ‘concentrated feed’ that contain maize, sorghum and oil cake,” says a professor of animal husbandry department at a college in Thanjavur.

The lockdown has affected the procurement of raw materials, in turn, resulting in the shortage of feed. Currently, the government sells the feed to cattle owners. But soon, it too will go out of stock and the milk production by hybrid breeds will decrease drastically, he says.

However, only cattle owners in urban and semi-urban areas face the problem, says Pamayan, a popular agricultural writer based in Madurai. “Owners in villages realised that the need for milk will come down during the lockdown. So, provide little feed to their cattle, which, in turn, give little milk that is sufficient for a family,” he says, adding that farmers who do self-sufficient agriculture are not worried about feed.

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If the lockdown continues, the shortage of feed will increase, says Balasubramanian, a cattle owner in Nagapattinam. “Most farmers in this part of the state grow traditional rice varieties. So, they have abundant hay and straw,” he says.

But cattle need additional nutrition, which can be obtained only through feed. The prices of feed have skyrocketed due to the lockdown and in the absence of rain, even grass becomes scarce, he says.

In most districts, transportation of cows to hospitals becomes difficult due to restriction in movement, says Balasubramanian. “In districts like Thanjavur, the Collector has provided travel passes not only to veterinarians, but also to livestock inspectors and animal husbandry assistants, who are in the lowest grades. Other districts must also follow this,” says Veeramani.

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