This article is from Open Magazine.
By Sonali Acharjee and Ritesh Uttamchandani
For the last four months, Adil Khanduja, a Chandigarh-based businessman has been busy shortlisting the best quality dark beer and alfafa sprouts to import. When he does find some spare time, he makes it a point to visit his 50-acre farm on the outskirts of the city to check on the progress that workers are making on his new marble-tiled swimming pool, music deck and automatic massage parlour. He wants everything to be just perfect for when the residents of the farm finally arrive--600 German Holstein cows.
Dutch Holstein Friesian cows in a milking machine cows at Pride of Cows' farm Nashik, Maharashtra.
"A happy cow is a healthy cow and gives healthy milk. Consumers are growing increasingly sceptical about tetrapak milk brands where there is no transparency regarding where the milk comes from or how the cows are treated. That cow in the middle of the road, eating discarded plastic packets and rotting garbage, breathing in the air from the exhaust of your car as you wait for her to clear the road--would you drink her milk?" asks Khanduja. Having completed a year-long course in dairy business and processing from the University College Dublin in Ireland, Khanduja is now all set to enter India's fast-growing organic milk market with his Happy Moo brand this December. "We are going to treat our cows like queens. They will be allowed to graze freely on organic grass, rest on individual day beds, drink fresh clean water, be treated to daily beer massages, swim on a hot summer's day and listen to relaxing sounds all day long. You might laugh, but it makes a huge difference to the milk the cow produces." Offering three variants--toned, double toned and full cream--Happy Moo milk will be delivered directly from his farm customers in glass bottles priced at Rs 180 per litre.
"That cow in the middle of the road, eating discarded plastic packets and rotting garbage, breathing in the air from the exhaust of your car as you wait for her to clear the road--would you drink her milk?" asks Khanduja."
"Right now, the organic milk business is around 3 per cent of the $70 billion market for dairy [products] in the country, but it is predicted to grow at a rate of around 15 per cent [annually] in the near future as customers become more conscious and aware about what they are consuming," adds Khanduja.
With the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India finding in 2012 that nearly 70 per cent of all milk in the country was diluted with water, milk powder or contained impurities like urea, liquid formaldehyde and detergent solution, it's little wonder then that a growing band of entrepreneurs are investing in offering healthy alternatives to store-bought milk through organic farms where the cow is indeed a queen. Whether it is the Nashik- based Pride of Cows brand, an offshoot of the Rs 1,200 crore Parag Milk Foods that supplies to Mumbai's A-list including Sachin Tendulkar, Mukesh Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan or 4S, Trumilk and Cowboys that deliver pesticide and hormone-free milk in south and central Delhi, the well-being of the cow is paramount to their success.
"When a cow is stressed, just like human beings, those hormones pass into its milk."
"Our 1,200 Holstein cows are as holy as they can get," jokes Jaidev Mishra, the spokesperson for Nashik-based Sarda Farms, which delivers fresh organic milk to Nashik and Mumbai. "They are fed organic feed based on their cycle, they can graze and relax as they wish, we have fans and fresh water available throughout the farm, there is no restraint imposed on any cow and they even have access to motion- sensitive massage brushes. The secret to the best milk is a happy cow and strict quality control," continues Mishra. Sarda Farms not only has automatic milking machines with zero human intervention, but also employs GPS trackers on all their delivery trucks to ensure that the milk is delivered straight to consumers with no deviation whatsoever. "We don't source our milk at all and deliver it straight to your home," says Mishra. Customers can currently order raw milk, pasteurised milk, pasteurised homogenised milk (where fat is broken down so that it mixes into the liquid easily, leaving behind less cream) and skimmed milk for Rs 80 per litre on a one- month subscription and Rs 60 per litre on a yearly deal. "If you look at most mass-market milk, the regulations actually allow them to package any kind of milk as long as the fat percentage and 'Solids Not Fat' percentage is correct in each product. So, many times what you are drinking is a mix of cow, sheep and buffalo milk with milk powder. People are certainly more aware of milk quality and production today, demanding high- quality, healthier and trustworthy milk," says Mishra.
Automated milking in progress at Pride of Cows' farm.
Rakesh Ravindran, who runs Astra Dairy Farms in Chennai, couldn't agree more. "When we first started, we only had one customer is each area. Now we have over 1,000 customers and the numbers are still growing. Travel, media and the internet have helped people realise the difference between good and bad milk. Once you've tasted organic milk, you'll instantly know the difference," insists Ravindran, who turned his family textile manufacturing business into a dairy farm three years ago. "Most dairies source the milk which they sell. Poorly fed cows are milked, then the milk often lies for hours in the open and is finally transferred to cans that reach the collection centre. Here, milk is transferred to a chilling centre, often subject to power shortages. The milk will then make a long journey, braving the Indian climate, to the processing tank at the dairy where it is then packaged into plastic pouches and placed in distributor cases, waiting for agents to pick them up. Not only is the milk reaching you days later, you don't even know what you are drinking is cow milk or not. At Astra Dairy, we produce our own and thus can guarantee what you are drinking is 100 per cent quality- controlled cow milk," claims Ravindran. At Astra Farms, 100 cows are fed nearly 35 kg of organic corn, grass and alfafa each day. "Pesticides pass into your milk, as does excess moisture in the grass. You want tasty milk--the trick is in feeding the cows the right food and giving the best care. There is just no alternative to this." Milk from Astra Farms is currently sold in Chennai for Rs 65 per litre.
Pride of Cows, another premium milk brand, also places extra emphasis on quality milk production by guaranteeing that the milk arrives at your doorstep within three hours and strictly maintaining a cold supply chain of 4º Celsius to ensure that no bacteria can contaminate the bottling or milking premises. The Dutch Holstein Friesian cows are all given a planned wholesome meal every day, with specially grown high quality alfalfa, pennisetum, greens, soya and bran. A glass of Pride of Cows milk is said to contain 285 mg of calcium (one-third of the daily recommended allowance), 8 gm of protein, and 3.6 gm of fat. Plus other essential nutrients such as biotin, iodine, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin D and vitamin K.
"So, many times what you are drinking is a mix of cow, sheep and buffalo milk with milk powder."
According to Gurgaon-based nutritionist Seema Mehta, poor quality milk is one of the biggest causes of skin, bowel and reproductive problems. "My first advice to my clients with acne problems is to stop drinking milk and it has worked almost 70 per cent time of the time. This is because milk in India is pumped with harmful hormones as a result of poor feed and care being given to the cow. When a cow is stressed, just like human beings, those hormones pass into its milk. In the same way, any sort of chemical-laden food or artificial hormones injected to instigate the cow to produce more milk, also pass into its milk. Imagine drinking chemicals and bad hormones mixed with 'milk powder' and fat, and you'll know why knowing the quality of your milk is so important," explains Mehta, adding that milk given to babies and children should be checked all the more. "Let me put it this way: despite what advertisements claim, I would not give my own children mass-produced, tetrapak milk in India. Maybe in Europe or the US, but not in India where the small farms from where milk is sourced haven't even been visited by the companies and dairies. Quality control after the milk is received at a processing plant is of no help. The damage to the nutrients has already been done."
Organic milk is also proving to be popular amongst chefs and home bakers. Protima Sen, a Bengaluru-based baker, swears by the difference that organic single-farm-produced milk from the local Akshayakalpa Farms makes to her products. "The quality of cream and butter from the milk is unbelievable," she says, "When I started baking with organic milk, the difference in cakes, cupcakes, cookies and desserts--which rely heavily on dairy products for their texture and taste--was noticeable."
"The quality of cream and butter from the milk is unbelievable"
But starting and maintaining an organic milk business is anything but easy. Doctor Moo, a Mumbai-based milk brand, and Wholly Cow, a Gurgaon-based brand run by the Landmark Group are among those that have already closed down their operations. "It is exactly the case as everything else that is organic. The investment, care and time required is much more. With livestock, the expenses are all the more because they consume such huge quantities of food each day and to purchase the animal itself is expensive. In dairy [businesses], you have to add the cost of milking machines, cooling chambers and delivery mechanisms. Together, this can cost you at least Rs 50 crore only to set up the basic farm and start operations. Then you have to add marketing costs, website costs, legal costs and labour costs. And even though people are aware of the benefits of organic milk, tetrapak mass-market milk is still more widely available. So it will take time to gather a consumer base and break even," says Khanduja, quickly adding that it helps if you are the first few in the market.
For seasoned organic dairy farmers like Ravindran, the only route to success is building your farm up slowly and staying true to quality control. "Your product has to speak for itself and only then will customers respect you and be loyal to your brand. The costs are high for an organic dairy, but the only thing once mustn't compromise on is on supplying the best feed and living conditions for the cow."