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Gifts in Action

The Center for Animal Health and Productivity: On a (Milk) Mission in India

By: Karen Gross Date: Mar 30, 2018

Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center is recognized as a valuable ally of the dairy and agriculture industries in Pennsylvania. And this reputation, as well as Penn Vet’s reach and impact, are continuing to spread rapidly around the world.

Per a memorandum of understanding signed in June, New Bolton Center’s Dr. David Galligan, Dr. Dipti Pitta, and Dr. Victor Absalón-Medina are slated to bring their expertise and innovation to a place both distant and very different from Pennsylvania: the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India.

The Penn Vet and Andhra Pradesh teams pose following a Penn Vet-led workshop on improving productivity of dairy cattle in India.“Milk Mission – An Elite Dairy Project”—as the venture is officially known—establishes a promising and pioneering collaboration between Penn Vet’s Center for Animal Health and Productivity (CAHP) and the government of Andhra Pradesh. The overarching goal: to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of the state’s smallholder dairy producers by improving animal management practices and implementing emerging reproductive and genomic technologies.

An Integrated Approach to Unique Challenges

Based at New Bolton Center, CAHP takes an integrated approach—combining expertise in dairy nutrition, reproduction, genomics, and health economics, in addition to conventional specialties in veterinary medicine.

Galligan is Professor of Animal Health Economics and the Director of CAHP. He is leading the Milk Mission project, with strong support from colleagues Pitta, a rumen microbiologist and Assistant Professor of Ruminant Nutrition, and Absalón-Medina, Director of the Large Animal Gamete and Embryo Manipulation Laboratory at New Bolton Center.  

A farmer gives low-quality feed to cross-bred dairy cattle, which form a significant part of bovine population in India.Galligan’s work is informed by his two Penn graduate degrees. After earning his VMD in 1981 and spending some time in dairy practice, he became interested in the economic aspects of animal production and management. In 1985, he graduated from the Wharton School with an MBA. As one of Penn Vet’s earliest VMD-MBA educators and researchers, he has been dedicated to helping veterinarians promote economic and environmental efficiency, as well as animal health.

“The unique thing about CAHP is that we’re very interested in the economic well-being and wealth of the producer, and that gets us into broader issues than traditional veterinary medicine, which often has dealt with just disease issues,” such as mastitis, Galligan explained.

“While that is important, we see this bigger issue of improving the overall well-being of the producer. And, that translates down to benefiting the animal. Once you have a wealthier producer, then animal healthcare is better and animal welfare issues are better,” he continued.

The Penn Vet team visits with researchers at LAM Farm, Guntur, known for maintaining the prestigious Ongole bovine breed.Prior to the Milk Mission project, Galligan had most recently traveled to China. He was among the recipients of the inaugural Penn China Research and Engagement Fund awards, for a collaborative project entitled Improving the Productive and Health Efficiency of the Chinese Dairy Industry.

He noted the distinct challenges of the dairy sector in Andhra Pradesh. “Most of the dairy industries in both the U.S. and China have seen a massive integration to larger operations to improve the wealth of producers. India is unique in that they still have this huge population of smallholder producers. So that’s a real challenge of figuring out how to bring technology economically to producers that have very low yield,” Galligan explained.

India ranks 20th in the world when it comes to yield per cow, with milking cows producingless than five liters of milk per day. In Andhra Pradesh that number is even lower, averaging four liters per day—which translates to low profitability for farmers.

Yerravu, or "red cow," is a locally developed breed of pride in one of the model villages in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh, India.While the productivity of cows in India is dwindling, an increase in the number of animals competes with the human population for food and other resources, and also impacts the environment through the production of methane—a potent greenhouse gas.

Furthermore, in Andhra Pradesh, more than 50 percent of milking animals are malnourished during their first year of life. There is also a need to improve food safety practices and establish a more efficient market structure for the collection and distribution of milk.

Addressing these challenges requires a cross-disciplinary strategy—and exemplifies Penn Vet’s One Health mission to advance animal, human, and environmental health.

Women farmers managing the collection, chilling, and distribution processes of bovine milk in a village in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh, IndiaThe CAHP team plans to provide training on advanced concepts of best nutrition and management practices, in order to enhance the number of skilled professionals and infrastructure in the region. They also will introduce innovations such as sexed semen technologies, in vitro production of embryos, and genomic tools to evaluate animal performance—all of which are geared to reducing animal numbers and improving productivity of cows, currently “the holy grail for animal agriculture in India,” Pitta noted.

“What we’re trying to do is assemble a lot of advanced technologies, from the genetics to the reproduction efficiency to the nutrition, that really are focused on production efficiency and yield,” Galligan said.

Expertise, Innovation, and a Personal Connection

The Milk Mission project unites Galligan’s integrated approach with Pitta’s expertise in nutrition and Absalón-Medina’s cutting-edge work combining nutrition and reproduction.

Originally from India, Pitta has been involved in a number of international projects focused on dairy and beef production systems. The effort in Andhra Pradesh, however, has both personal and professional significance.

Penn Vet's Dr. Galligan exchanges the signed MOU with Dr. Manmohan Singh, Special Chief Secretary, department of Animal Husbandry, Andhra Pradesh in the presence of the Mr. N. Chandrababu Naidu, Chief Minister of AP state.Pitta’s father was a veterinarian, who retired as joint director in Andhra Pradesh’s Animal Husbandry Department. He inspired her to pursue a career in the veterinary field. “Having been exposed to animal husbandry surroundings right from childhood provided the impetus for me to have a vision for the dairy sector in India,” she said.

Pitta also credits her father with encouraging her focus on nutrition. “Very soon I realized [the field] has great potential, particularly in India and some of the developing countries,” she said.

During her PhD training, she began to study rumen microbes, which “play an important role in how feeds are converted to energy,” Pitta said. “When you’re working on feed efficiency, trying to get the right microbes in the rumen is an important aspect.”

An under-nourished bullock trying to eat green chop leftover on a trailer.Absalón-Medina’s work merges the fields of nutrition and reproduction, with an emphasis on improving the quality of gametes and embryos from livestock species.

In Andhra Pradesh, he and the Penn Vet team are working to improve the genetics of milking animals and increase the number of females, in order to boost performance and yield. They are collaborating with Brandon Webb—Managing Director of Royal Atlantic Holdings as well as the Founding Partner of Cogent IVF, an industry leader in bovine assisted reproductive technologies.

Absalón-Medina pointed to the importance of Dr. Galligan’s perspective. “He has the view of the economic models that puts together all of these disciplines in a way that works,” he said.

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Once the contract is signed, Galligan expects the project to begin this fall and span a five-year period, with the possibility of extending further into the future.

Penn Vet students have previously traveled to India on summer internships to conduct research and gain dairy practice experience. Galligan is looking forward to engaging more students, noting that food animal production jobs are on the rise internationally.

Cows are sacred in India. The Penn Vet team participates in a religious ritual performed by the local priest.
As part of the Milk Mission project, Penn Vet would also welcome around eight Indian trainees to New Bolton Center annually. They would be exposed to new techniques and technologies in nutrition as well as herd and milking management, bringing these skills back to dairy centers in Andhra Pradesh.

“I think as a vet school we are unique in our very broad view,” Galligan said. “We come with a broader vision of One Health. We see how the animal production system fits with the economic health of the producer, the environment, and then ultimately provisioning society with quality, safe products.”