Livestock constitutes an important sector of the Indian economy and has immense importance for income and employment generation; more so in the rural settings. Livestock and agriculture are interdependent upon each other. Infact both have a complimentary and supplementary relationship. Both are an integral part of integrated farming systems where output of one becomes the input of other. Among the livestock, rearing of small ruminants plays a very important role in the lives of households in developing countries like ours. Infact, pastoralists mainly depend on three resources livestock (mainly sheep and goat), pasture and water and this is the region they keep on migrating. In India, they provide livelihood security to two-third of rural community. Small ruminants are grazing mammals, such as sheep and goats. Small ruminants, predominantly sheep and goats were among the first livestock to be domesticated for food and fibre.
Data reveals that about 70% of the landless agricultural labourers, small, marginal and resource poor farmers in the country are associated with goat husbandry. Infact, goat is called a poor man’s cow. Small ruminants are also an essential component of rainfed farming systems in dry land and semi arid regions of the country. The advantage of these animals, compared to large ruminants (cattle) is their low cost, small size, and marginal land use, which convert into high-quality animal products. They make a valuable contribution to the livelihood of the economically weaker sections of the society. These form an important economic and ecological niche in agricultural systems of rural communities across developing countries. This is because small ruminants make a very valuable contribution to household income, especially to the poor in the rural areas. The major source of returns in rearing of small ruminants is from the sale of animals, sale of lambs, value of home consumption and penning and manure.
Rearing of Sheep and Goats play an important role in the economy of the country and in sustainable livelihood of poor people of rainfed agro-ecosystem. This is because rainfed regions depend upon timely availability of rainfall for cultivation of crops. In case the rainfall does not occurs at the appropriate time or is not adequate to enable the farmers to go for sowing of different crops, the subsidiary occupation such as rearing of small ruminants comes to the rescue of millions of farmers residing in these rainfed regions. Data reveals that these small ruminants add around 24000 million every year to the rural economy because about 6 million families in India are engaged in rearing of small ruminants.
Small Ruminants and Social Change
Livestock are often regarded as producers of milk and meat, income generators and reservoirs of wealth. However, rearing of small ruminants like sheep and goats has proved to have lasting effects in bringing about social change by improving the incomes of these people. The ruminants provide their owners with a vast range of products and services. The rural areas are still plagued with the non availability of credit institutions. An easy way to store cash for future needs is through the purchase of sheep and goats. In fact, in some areas small ruminants have been described as the ‘village bank’. Moreover, sheep and goats are kept for a variety of economic reasons including savings and investment, security and insurance, stability, and social functions. An improvement in the financial security of rural households through rearing small ruminants inevitably translates to better living conditions for these households and thus the beginning of social change.
Economic Security of Women Folk
Small ruminants along with poultry are of economic importance to small-holder farmers’ and especially women. The total income share of small ruminants tends to be inversely related to size of land-holding suggesting that small ruminants are of particular importance for landless people especially women. In many countries women are often not entitled to own land and since agriculture provides only seasonal employment, rearing small ruminants provide employment and income as a subsidiary occupation. These small ruminants also play an important role in ensuring rural women’s financial security and data reveals that women are better managers of household resources than men. Rural women are involved in the raising or rearing of small ruminants sheep and goats especially around homes by feeding them kitchen wastes or at most times leaving them to graze on surrounding herbs and shrubs. In many countries, the small ruminants have assisted women in rural areas in meeting financial obligations with the overall goal of ensuring its sustainability and enhancing the benefits inherent in the practice of small ruminants’ husbandry.
These small ruminants are climatic resilient as these have the ability to withstand climatic aberrations like drought better than cattle. Their short reproductive cycle allows them to quickly recover from rapid resumption of breeding following drought or devastating disease infestation.
Sheep and Goats are a good source of protein and fats and this makes them the most important component of livestock in pastoral and agro-pastoral production system. In contrast to large ruminants like cattle which are normally concentrated and remain in the hands of a restricted number of producers (high income rural households), small ruminants are dominant in almost every low income rural household. A 10 to 15 kg small ruminant carcass is easily handled by a rural household for either home consumption or sale without means of preservation, slaughtering even a steer (when it is available) for the same purposes is generally impracticable and uneconomical and is therefore a rare event.
In certain regions of the country as well as across the globe rearing of sheep and goats is done for barter exchange. It happens particularly in places where access to cash is limited and livestock marketing is not regulated or organized. In such cases, small ruminants are directly exchanged for grain. Small ruminants are also kept by poor rural households for ready cash income to meet immediate needs such as acquiring agricultural inputs, paying school fees and purchasing larger animals such as cattle. This is because rural households find it easier to find a buyer for a goat or a sheep than a cow.
Small ruminants and Festivities
Small ruminants add to the festivities and other special social gatherings. They are often served in honor of a special guests, friends or relatives for festivities and various social and religious rituals. They also have a key role in stock association building between members living in the same community in rural areas. In sub-Saharan Africa, Sheep and Goats allow poorer households to maintain their subsistence calls.
Sheep are preferred over goats as they can graze on dry grass, crops residues and twigs even in peak summer months. Sheep husbandry is one of the important sources of income and livelihood among farmers in state of Rajasthan, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand. The lofty mountains, low hills and meadows of Kashmir provide enormous scope for rearing of small ruminants. It is the core occupation of tribal population which includes Gujjars and Bakerwals, the Gaddis, the Changpas and the Chopans. It is also a rich repository of sheep and goat genetic resources. Among 43 registered breeds of sheep in the country. J&K (including Ladakh) contributed 6 viz Bakerwals, Changthangi, Gaddi, Gurez, Karnah and Poonchi and many other non registered breeds.
Despite all this the sector still remains neglected and unorganized. The farmers engaged in rearing of these small ruminants face a lot of constraints. Outbreak of disease often results in a huge economic loss to them. Fodder scarcity still haunts them and they also are engaged in conflict with forest staff. They find problem during transportation of these small ruminants from one place to another. The owners still do not have access to formal credit institutions and these do not have any insurance coverage. The pastoral communities have also seriously been marginalized due to their ignorance, migratory lifestyle, small population, cultural stereotyping and irrational government policies. They still do not have a settled life. Hence there is need to strengthen the sector by focusing on research, educating rearers, transfer of relevant technology to improve the health of these small ruminants, developing livestock value chains and also to make it an enterprise economically viable and sustainable for the marginal, resource poor and small farmers.
(The author is a faculty at SKUAST-K, can be reached at email@example.com