As India’s expansive dairy industry grapples with comparatively low milk yields, an Israeli company is tackling the challenge at its source – by impregnating surrogate heifers with “genetically superior” embryos.
“India is the biggest milk producer in the world,” Saar Yavin, CEO and chief scientist at Maxximilk Ltd., told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “They have more than 100 million cows and they have the lowest efficiency. So there is a lot of room to improve.”
Scientists at Maxximilk produce what they describe as the “highest quality in-vitro, ready-for-transfer pedigree embryos” that are genetically predisposed to withstand hot weather conditions and produce greater quantities of top-quality milk. Originally established in central Israel in 2008, Maxximilk shifted gears and opened a production facility in the Indian state of Maharashtra last August, after cementing a partnership agreement with the Godrej Agrovet Ltd. animal feed company.
When Yavin and his colleagues first established Maxximilk they intended to manufacture the embryos in Israel and export them around the world, according to Adaya Aroyo, who serves as laboratory manager at the Maharashtra facility.
“As it turned out, that wasn’t so easy,” she said. “In order to export the embryos, you need a health protocol between the two countries.”
When Godrej Agrovet sent a delegation to Israel for an agriculture conference two years ago, the companies forged a partnership and decided to transfer the technology to India in a joint venture. After opening a facility in Nashik, a city about 170 km. northeast of Mumbai, in August, the partners began production in October, Aroyo explained.
“Everything is going very well,” she said. “We’re producing many embryos. The lab is working perfectly. We have started transferring embryos and we have pregnancies.”
Rather than selling the embryos to individual farmers, Maxximilk is setting up its own recipient farm, in order to ensure the high quality of the surrogate heifers as well. This approach is also more fitting to the Indian market as whole, which is likely not mature enough to support widespread sales of embryos, Aroyo explained.
“Embryos are potential – you don’t know whether you will get a pregnancy,” she said. “If you buy a heifer, it’s something in your hands.”
At the moment, of the 100 cows at the Nashik center, about 30 are of suitable breeding age, and around half of these 30 are already pregnant, Aroyo said. The scientists are producing female embryos only, using sex-sorted semen that they import from the United States and Canada from a certain number of bulls. The eggs, meanwhile, come from a select pool of cows in India that Maxximilk has shown has superior qualities.
While Aroyo acknowledged that it might be better to increase the reservoir of bulls for more genetic diversity, she said that the Indian government only permits a specific set for import. On the other hand, she explained, the lab has donor cards that they shuffle around all the time, mixing and matching the eggs and sperm of different cows.
“There are lots of details in an IVF lab, just like in a human IVF lab,” Aroyo said. “The only difference in our business is that we don’t return it to the same cow we took it from.”
The scientists are also creating crossbred embryos, by intermingling local Indian breeds with Holstein-Friesian cows, to create a Girolando breed that is strong in milk production as well as resistant to heat and diseases, she added.
“The price will be around double the price of a regular heifer, but the production will be much higher, at least three or four times,” Yavin said.
Maxximilk has divided up the company’s target market into two main groups – big farms that require milking cows with very high quality genetics and smaller farmers who want more resistant animals, but would be satisfied with slightly lower yields, Yavin explained. Even in the latter case, the heifers would be producing more than double the output of the standard dairy cow in India, he said.
While the price of the Maxximilk heifers might be high, Aroyo stressed that farmers are able to continue using the cows to breed further generations.
“It’s a good tool for increasing milk production and promoting your dairy farm genetically, very quickly,” she said.
As dairy companies scramble to satisfy the country’s growing dairy needs, they are building big farms with top quality milking parlors, yet are often struggling to increase milk yields, according to Aroyo. For these farms, an investment in heifers produced from high quality embryos is a particularly worthwhile step, she contended.
While the scientists at Maxximilk have long embraced the method of embryo transfer to improve dairy herd quality, Aroyo said that optimally, farmers should combine this strategy with artificial insemination to achieve the fastest growth possible in their barns.
“It’s not going to be the main technology because it will be expensive, but it will be for a progressive farmer,” Yavin added.
Because India’s population of dairy cows is so huge, making even a small contribution to that sector is a significant achievement, he explained.
“Hopefully in five years, we won’t be only one center in India,” Aroyo said. “We want to have more breeding centers in different states, which will be aimed not only at increasing milk production but also improving indigenous Indian breeds.”
Anat Bernstein-Reich, chairwoman of the Israel-India Chamber of Commerce and managing director of A&G Partners, connected The Jerusalem Post
to the company.