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Field Notes: India

Anuj Modi was nervous when he arrived for the first day of his summer internship at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station last year. The freshman dairy science major could have been back home with friends and family in Bikaner, India. Instead, he was on the other side of the world, tasked with helping care for a large herd of dairy cattle. It was the first job he had ever had.

And he’d never milked a cow.

“Before my internship, a cow was just like any other animal—like a horse or a camel,” Modi recalls. “I didn’t know anything about cows or dairy farming.”

But that doesn’t mean Modi didn’t know a thing or two about the dairy industry. His grandfather got the family into the business more than 40 years ago. His father helped carry on the legacy, and Modi is now hoping to take the family dairy business into its third generation. Today, Lotus Dairy has three processing plants in Rajastahn, India’s largest state. They process one million liters of milk a day, selling it to clients like Nestle and Mother Dairy, a subsidiary of India’s National Dairy Development Board.

Considering this, the fact that it took a move to Wisconsin to acquaint Modi with a cow may sound strange. But there are very few modern dairy farms in India. The cow enjoys sacred status in the Hindu faith and legal protection in many Indian states, which means managing a large herd and culling cows that are sick or not producing is often out of the question.

In addition to political and religious considerations, having a small herd is simply a way of life for many. “People in rural areas keep four or five cows in their backyard and sell the milk to people like Lotus,” Modi says. “We collect milk mainly from villages. We have chilling centers in 80 locations across our state, and the number of people bringing us milk is high, close to 35,000 or 40,000.”

This arrangement is so common that it makes India the world’s leading producer of milk. And it’s not even close. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, India has 48 million dairy cows, up from 38 million only five years ago. Brazil, the next closest country, has half as many. There are only 9.2 million in the United States.

Combine that level of supply with a modernizing industry that’s making milk production and processing more efficient, and you have the beginning of a boom. International developments like these are being felt here on campus, says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Sciences.

“As the dairy farms and milk processing plants in countries like India, China and Pakistan expand and modernize, they import supplies, equipment and expertise from North America,” Weigel says. “And they build relationships, which lead to sending the next generation to study abroad.”

Weigel says the resulting influx of international students is beneficial to the department. They provide existing students with a new and global perspective regarding dairy farming and life in other countries. And, he says, “They extend Dairy Science’s reach and impact well beyond the borders of Wisconsin—influencing dairy production systems on other continents and building a global alumni base.”