For most of March I travelled through Rajasthan in north-west India with old friend Angus Adnam.
After passing a number of large cattle yards on the side of the road, we asked our driver what they were.
He apologised that he was not sure of the exact translation from the Sanskrit word “goshala”, but he thought it was “cow palace”.
At the far western desert city of Jaisalmer near the Pakistan border we met a guide with very good English who explained the situation.
About 90+ percent of cows in India are owned by persons/families leaving about 10pc without someone who is directly responsible for their care.
When cattle from this minority group become sick or old or skinny or for any other reason need help, they are taken to the local goshala where they are cared for until they die of natural causes.
With something like 300 million cows in India, this implies a total of roughly 30 million homeless cows will at some time in their lives will need care.
Indian Hindus manage this situation through a nationwide network of independently managed goshalas or cattle care homes. This system is funded by a mix of non-profit organizations, religious groups, some government support, large private donors, volunteer workers and a multitude of daily donations from individuals.
When you drive past one of these goshalas there is usually someone out the front offering feed for sale which the traveler purchases (about 50c) and then feeds to one or more cattle. Our guide explained that he does this every morning on his way to work, and this is his first act of Karma for the day – a good deed that will hopefully prove beneficial to him in the future.
This guide also explained that the correct translation of goshala is cow shed but I think that cow palace is much more appropriate, especially if you happen to be one of these very fortunate cows.
The huge quantities of cow manure generated every day are an important contributor to the financial support of the cow palace as this product is quite valuable in India where it is dried and used for cooking fires and also converted into compost to return to the soil as fertilizer. Milk is also collected from lactating cows with enough milk to share with their calf and sold into the local market.
This care for animals is not restricted to cows. We constantly saw people feeding wild pigeons and stray dogs in the street as part of their daily good deeds to animals.
Some fresh cut lucerne is presented on the side of the road to attract travelers to stop and contribute to the feeding of these cows with small (50 cents) or much larger donations.
You can feed them yourself or just give the money to the workers who live with and care for these cattle 24/7.
We mainly saw a mixture of wheaten chaff and fresh cut lucerne fed to the cattle but all manner of crop residues are available at different times of the year.
This cow palace outside Jodhpur housed about 1,000 head of cattle in a number of large pens like the one above. All the larger yards had extensive roof cover.
Up to 50% of all the cows we saw across NW India had scars on their hides which I suspect were the result of the severe 2022 Lumpy Skin Disease epidemic. Each goshala has a sick pen where animals are treated by the local Department of Agriculture vets.
With about 1,000 head of cattle to be hand feed indefinitely in this goshala, the volume of feed that must be purchased and stored is huge.
Small farmers in the northwestern desert usually have a small plot of irrigated lucerne which they produce for sale to the nearby goshala.
Indian government statistics state that despite its enormous 1.4 billion human population, India is a net exporter of wheat, rice and other food grains. The result is a massive quantity of crop wastes ideal for feeding to hungry cows in the form of chaff. Chick peas and other pulses are also grown in spectacular quantities. The sale of this mix of cow feeds to the goshala network is a significant income generator for small farmers across the nation.
Across the northwest it seemed that most of this crop waste was converted into chaff then transported by a huge fleet of specially designed utilities, tractor/trailers and large trucks.
In response to questions from Osvaldo Balbuena the methane emissions from these cattle are only part of the carbon cycle with the methane having a breakdown half-life of a couple of years i.e. almost completely gone within 12 years and hence must not be a concern with regard to any effect on global warming.
What about these cattle contribution to methane and other greenhouse gases emissions? Are there any international concerns, questions, critics, etc.?
Thanks Ross, a most interesting insite. I wonder do these collectives factor into the countrys carbon tax program? Any more than do the plains of Africa?
Great story Ross & thank you.
It is always fascinating to learn about the cultural and economic significance of cattle in other regions