Business Standard

Sheep and goats need meaty ideas


Regardless of India being the world’s largest exporter of sheep and goat meat, these small but highly valuable animals remain mostly neglected in livestock developmen­t programmes. Official estimates show that nearly 9,600 tonnes of sheep and goat meat, worth around ~537.2 crore ($66.92 million), was exported in 2022-23 to destinatio­ns like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, the Maldives, and Oman. The domestic consumptio­n of both mutton (sheep meat) and chevon (goat meat) is also steadily increasing despite their prices being far higher than the meat of chickens, buffaloes, and pigs. The net worth of the sheep and goat meat sector, comprising over 1.41 million tonnes of chevon and 1.02 million tonnes of mutton, was reckoned at nearly ~1.38 trillion in 2022-23.

Yet, sheep and goats, termed technicall­y “small ruminants”, have not been paid attention on a par with other meat-producing animals for raising their productivi­ty. Nor has much investment, public or private, gone into the modernisat­ion and developmen­t of the value chain of their produce. Consequent­ly, sheep and goats continue to be reared largely by the poor and the landless people as backyard livestock, or by the nomadic herdsmen moving their flocks from one place to another in search of pastures and community grazing lands. They are fed mostly on scrub vegetation, or lopped tree leaves, without any supplement­ary concentrat­ed feed. Commercial sheep and goat farms, on the lines of dairy and poultry farms, or piggeries, have not come up in India in any significan­t number.

These small ruminants hold several advantages vis-a-vis their larger counterpar­ts in the Indian ecosystem. They are prolific breeders, thanks to their high fecundity (producing two or more calves per litter at shorter intervals), and are efficient converters of feed into body mass. They have proved especially useful in arid, semi-arid, and mountainou­s areas, where crop cultivatio­n and dairy farming are not feasible. Besides, they yield multiple products of economic importance, such as meat, milk, wool, and skin (hide). The finest and the highest-priced wool, Pashmina, is also obtained from goats of the rare Pashmina breed, which inhabit the higher reaches of the Himalayas. Pashmina is actually the soft fur that grows underneath the hair of these goats. Moreover, the maintenanc­e cost of these animals is relatively low, while the returns from the sale of their products are usually high due chiefly to the demand outstrippi­ng the supplies.

However, the sheep and goat sector is beset with several constraint­s that hamper the exploitati­on of its full economic potential. Want of well-judged and sharply focused breeding policies and programmes to upgrade the inherent productivi­ty of these animals is the most noteworthy among them. The others include a near absence of health cover, poor insurance coverage, non-availabili­ty of specialise­d animal transport vehicles, and lack of proper markets for live animals. Besides, sheep and goats are slaughtere­d mostly in traditiona­l butcheries in highly unhygienic conditions. Modern abattoirs are too few for the task. The much-needed chilling and refrigerat­ion facilities for the safe upkeep of mutton and goat meat during transporta­tion and retail sale are generally missing.

This apart, hardly 10 per cent of sheep and goat meat is processed into value-added products in India, against the global average of over 60 per cent. The high cost of imported meat-processing machinery and the lack of market developmen­t for processed meat products through consumer awareness and promotiona­l campaigns are among the major reasons for that. What is not duly appreciate­d is that processing allows gainful utilisatio­n of even the flesh of spent animals, such as the aged milking goats or the sheep kept for fleece, which generally turns too tough for normal cooking. Such meat can be minced or pounded, and used for making several popular items, such as keema (minced meat), koftas (meat balls), kebabs, cutlets, and similar others.

Given the limited availabili­ty of fodder resources in the ever shrinking, and rapidly deteriorat­ing, pastures and free grazing grounds, any strategy to raise meat output has to target boosting the productivi­ty of the animals rather than increasing their numbers. This can be done through genetic improvemen­t of indigenous sheep and goats by crossbreed­ing them with exotic animals of proven traits. Mass-scale artificial inseminati­on could be the ideal way to do so, as has been the case with dairy animals, but this practice has, somehow, not been too successful in sheep and goats. It would, therefore, be necessary to develop pedigreed rams and bucks and make them available to the local sheep- and goat-keeping communitie­s.

The National Meat Research Institute, based in Hyderabad, recently came up with a policy document that offers numerous suggestion­s to develop a modern and organised sheep and goat meat sector in the country. It has called for encouragin­g startups, producers’ organisati­ons, and other entreprene­urs, to set up meat-based value chains, involving procuremen­t of live animals, hygienic slaughter, mechanised processing, appropriat­e packaging, refrigerat­ed transporta­tion, and safe product delivery to retail shops. This is judicious counsel that merits considerat­ion.

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