Last year, when Hilal Ahmad Yatoo, a young sheep farmer in Chandarhama village of Baramullah district, was not sure whether one of his ewes had conceived again or not (long after the previous delivery), he did not sell her off to a butcher like an average sheep farmer would do.
Yatoo put the ewe into his car and carried her all the way to Faculty of Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) at Shuhama, some 40km away from his village, to get her ultrasonography done.
After the ultrasonography was done, it turned out the ewe was pregnant. Hilal, accompanied by his brother, Showkat, returned home happily even as the duo had to spend around 800 rupees on treatment charges and fuel.
It is a pity that Yatoo had to travel such a long distance for getting the ultrasonography of his ewe done. According to officials at Sheep Husbandry Department (SHD) of Kashmir, there is only one ultrasonography machine for entire Kashmir region which is installed at the hospital within the SHD headquarters. While some health-care facilities for livestock are mostly available in all areas, there should have been facilities like availability of at least one ultrasonography machine in each district, the officials said.
The patience and smartness of Yatoo bore fruit when the ewe gave birth to a ram lamb later. Yatoo knew he could not take chances with the quality breeding potential he has developed in his flock with meticulous care over the past several years. I had a fair idea what kind of result I will get from the pregnancy of this ewe. That is why I wanted to get my doubts cleared at the hospital. Thankfully, the result of the examination at the hospital brought me enough joy, Yatoo told this writer at his home in Chandarhama.
The 37-year-old farmer said that when the ram got a few months old, he sold him for 20,000 rupees to another farmer for breeding. Imagine, if I had decided to sell it off to a butcher? I would not have only suffered financial loss myself, but would have also deprived another farmer of a ram for the breeding purpose. And then consider the fact that the ewe conceived again and delivered another lamb (ewe lamb), said the progressive sheep farmer who owns 130 sheep (called Kashmir Marino).
While Yatoo narrated this anecdote, it certainly served as a proof that he is a sheep farmer of a distinction. When I identify even some minor problem in my flock, I try to sort it out rather than escaping from it as I am reliant on making income mostly out of my sheep though I also own an apple orchard, Yatoo said.
His passion for quality sheep farming is also reflected in the housing management he has opted for, for his flock. The barn where he keeps his sheep is much different from an average barn in Kashmir. Whether it is about feeding his sheep or keeping the barn clean to avoid his sheep soiling their bodies with their waste, there is arrangement for everything.
Yatoo and his younger brother, Showkat, have made use of internet to download designs of wooden mangers from which the sheep eat. To ensure that their sheep stay clean, they have made proper arrangements in the barn thanks to their keenness to find designs on internet.
Following their footsteps, is another farmer, Atiqullah Wani, who lives in the same village. Wani also has a flock of quality sheep and he doesnt make any compromises while looking after his sheep. Sometimes, when I have to look after my ewes when they are about to deliver the lambs, I sleep just next to the barn as I keep it very clean, Wani told this writer. It irritates me when I see someones sheep have their legs soiled with their waste, he said while pointing towards some sheep in a herd grazing near the Haigam wetland.
Farmer without flaws
What has particularly made Yatoo a name in sheep farming is the way he maintains the quality sheep germplasm (of Kashmir Marino). He, along with his brother, work very hard and take meticulous care of their ewes when they are at the breeding stage.
We take a lot of care while choosing which ewe should breed with which ram. A lot of thinking goes into it and also to avoid in-breeding (when the same ram breeds with an ewe and her offspring or sibling), Yatoo said adding that he uses colour-markers and we also separate the couples when we get the feeling that a certain ewe is ready for breeding. When Yatoo sends his flock for summer grazing (for three months) to the pastures in Gurez-Bandipora, he pays extra money to the herder for ensuring that his livestock doesnt get mixed with others and gives him instructions by marking animals with colour-codes for breeding.
So, not surprisingly, his rams (for breeding) fetch good prices with some of them selling between 50,000 to 100,000 rupees. Currently, I am getting over 100,000 (one hundred thousand) for one of my rams, but I am not selling it for now, Yatoo said.
By share coincidence, he had a customer coming from south Kashmirs Achabal area to buy a ram for breeding while Yatoo was in conversation with this writer. He kept giving directions (on phone) to the customer as and when he asked while getting to Yatoos home. He later introduced himself as Muzaffar Ahmad Khan, a sheep farmer from Achabal in south Kashmir.
Khan ended up buying a six-month-old ram against 35,000 rupees before he had lunch with Yatoo. While conversing with Khan, who was also accompanied by his friend (Firdose Ahmad) over the lunch, Yatoo mostly focused on briefing Khan about the care he needs to take while feeding the ram and using him for breeding.
Yatoo said that he sells around 20 to 30 sheep every year, which include both ewes and rams (for breeding). Early this year, I and three other farmers sold 56 sheep to the SKUAST for its sheep farm in Shuhama, Yatoo said. Hilal Ahmad Malik of the SKUAST, who looks after the sheep farm of the university said that Yatoo is the first farmer which they think of whenever they need ewes and rams for the farm.
He is the star farmer when it comes to sheep farming. We have met many progressive sheep farmers and seen their flocks, but there is hardly anyone whose quality of sheep is as good as Hilal Yatoos, Malik said and added that Yatoos work as a sheep farmer was also acknowledged at the national level early this year when he was given the Innovative Farmer Award by Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Profiling Yatoo in its newsletter, ICAR has written: Sh. Yatoo maintains elite germplasm of sheep and sells them to fellow farmers, line departments and the agricultural university [SKUAST].
More mutton production
Farmers like Yatoo are helping increasing the local production of mutton in Kashmir where people are voracious meat eaters. In Srinagar city and majour towns, people prefer eating mutton rather than beef which results in increase in the demand of mutton every year. Mutton is considered as all season food in Kashmir and is also massively used for Wazwan (myriad varieties of meat dishes) during weddings and other functions.
According to the director of Sheep Husbandry Department, Abdul Salam Mir, the primary objective of his department is to increase the production of mutton and wool considering the huge consumption of mutton in Kashmir. As per official records, local production of mutton was 121 lakh kgs in year 2003 which has now increased to 133 lakh kgs. Overall consumption of mutton is currently 310 lakh kgs which is met by importing 177 kgs of mutton from other states like Rajasthan and Haryana.
We are constantly making progress in increasing the local production and we hope to make more progress in coming years. We cant afford any laxity in this regard as our demand is only increasing and we are importing well over 50 percent of mutton from outside the state. So, we have to make rapid progress in increasing local production, Mir told this writer.
For several years, Mir said, the Sheep Husbandry Department has adopted multi-pronged strategy which notably includes implementation of cross-breeding programmes, going on for several years now. The quality of sheep which we had before 1990s, used to be low on both meat and wool. But after we started the cross-breeding programme to get Kashmir Marino, both these issues have been resolved, Mir said adding that Kashmir Marino is far more productive both in terms of mutton and wool.
As part of the cross-breeding programme to get Kashmir Marino, Kashmir valley ewes were crossed with Australian Merino Rams and F1 (first generation hybrid) Ewes were bred to Delain Rams of USA. And then F2 (second generation hybrids) were bred among themselves after proper selection on the basis of wool quality and body weight. The matting among F2 generation continued till a breed with steady and uniform characters evolved which was named as Kashmir Merino.
Kashmir Marino is proving effective in increasing the local production with 549 sheep extension centres establishing a vital link between the department and the breeders. Mir said that the technical staff, available at sheep extension centres, provide facilities to the breeders at their door step. Farmers like Yatoo are proving a bone to sheep proliferation in Kashmir by maintaining the best germplasm of Kashmir Marino!