Where there’s grass there are cows, even in Penang’s more populated suburbs. They provide valuable milk and other benefits to the state’s growing population.
Caring for a herd of 50 dairy cattle is no easy feat. For cousins M. Meharaj Servai, 25, M. Paandiy Muthu, 19, and B. Revinraj, 17, the opportunity it offers to preserve family bonds also comes with the heavy task of cattle management. “I guess you could say we’re not your typical millennials,” says Meharaj. “While most millennials regard money to be an asset, we view our cattle as ours.”
According to Meharaj, milking cows has a (potentially bruising) learning curve.
The trio are third-generation cattle farmers navigating their way through Penang’s urban landscape. “These days, it’s very difficult to find a plot of land big enough to house all 50 cattle. We have to divide them into smaller, more manageable herds housed in four makeshift cowsheds around George Town,” says Paandiy.
The family’s main cowshed is nestled deep within the Batu Gantung Cemetery, where the cattle are allowed to graze and roam undisturbed. But the challenges are many. Come end of March each year, the grass is poisoned in the days leading up to Qing Ming, the Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day, so it is dry and will easily catch fire. “But the cattle are intelligent creatures. They’re able to tell if the grass is poisoned just by sniffing it or observing its change in colour. During this period, I’ll bring them grass from other fields to eat,” says Meharaj.
M. Meharaj Servai.
The other cowsheds are located along Jalan Lumba Kuda, Jalan York and Jalan Masjid Negeri. “We will request for a plot of land at Balik Pulau (from the state government). But transportation will definitely be a problem for us because our cattle feed suppliers are based along Jalan Perak and at Tanjung Bungah. It’ll be quite a distance travelling all the way to Balik Pulau daily.
“Furthermore, cattle-raiding is more common in Balik Pulau than it is in George Town. What these thieves do is inject the cattle with a drug that will make them dizzy and slow long enough for them to be hauled onto a lorry. By the time we lodge a police report the cattle would have been slaughtered, so it’s pointless. Currently our cowsheds are located near where we live, so we can easily make night-time rounds to check on them.”
The cattle the family owns are a mix between the Kedah-Kelantan (KK) breed and Australian cattle breeds. “The KK breed is generally small in size and quite rotund, but they don’t produce a lot of milk – just enough to feed their calves. On the other hand, purebred Australian cattle can give us a lot of milk but aren’t able to acclimatise to our tropical climate. My grandfather decided to mate the two breeds in order to get the best of both worlds. Now, we can get up to 15kg of milk on average per day from one cow,” Meharaj says.
Selling milk is the family’s primary source of income: “We usually sell to local Indian eateries like Jaya Catering for RM5 per kg. The price is kept slightly lower compared to selling to residential houses, but the eateries help us clear the milk on a daily basis.” They also rent their bulls to temples in Butterworth, Bukit Minyak and Bukit Tengah in Seberang Perai, and Serdang in Kedah for the annual Thaipusam festival. “For each Thaipusam venue, we’ll need to rent out four bulls as the celebrations usually start at 7pm and stretch on until 4-5am. The two pairs will take turns pulling the chariot.” Meharaj adds that the rental fee is around RM650 per venue to cover the cost of petrol and toll as well as the rental of the lorries to ferry the bulls. “But if it’s on the island, we loan the bulls free of charge.”
Chariot pulling takes patience (by the herders) and practice (by the bulls).
There’s more to chariot pulling than putting on the yoke: “Our Brahman bulls from Thailand are good chariot pullers but they need to be trained at least two weeks prior to the festival. First, we latch an empty cart onto the bulls to teach them how to walk with it. Then, we pile heavy stones into the cart and sit on it so the bulls get accustomed to the weight; a normal chariot weighs four and a half tonnes. Also, for the task of pulling the chariot, Brahman bulls with black hooves are preferred; white hooves are more susceptible to thinning if there’s too much friction with the ground.”
But are the collective incomes enough to cover the monthly cost of cattle-rearing? For cattle feed alone, Meharaj estimates expenditure at around RM3,000. The cattle are fed as many as three times a day with soya bean and palm kernel meal, among other things. “Just buying the soya bean will set us back RM850,” says Meharaj.
Caring for their cattle is a family affair.
As registered licensed cattle owners, the youths keep up with the latest cattle management techniques. Paandiy attends practical skills training and lifestock farming courses provided by the government veterinary department. “The last time I attended the course was in 2015 in Johor Bahru. They showed us the latest technology in dairy farming which included the use of machines to milk the cows as well as information about how best to prevent the spread of Hoof and Mouth Disease (HMD) among the cattle,” says Paandiy.
HMD is an acute infectious disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals and is characterised by vesiculation, or the blistering of the hooves and oral cavity. “If our cattle are infected, it would be disastrous for our business because there’s no known medication for it. We’d have no choice but to send them to the slaughterhouse at Jalan Sungai,” says Meharaj. The cattle are all vaccinated once every six months.
B. Revinraj stands in the background.
It’s a family-oriented business above all. We don’t know what the future holds but we will keep persevering because it’s a chance at preserving our grandfather’s legacy, and to make our own as well.
“As young cattle farmers, every day we learn something new,” says Meharaj. He recalls the time he got kicked when he tried to milk cows that were first-time mothers because their teats were still tender. “Some cows would even jump. Now, I bind their hind legs to avoid injury. I’ve also learned to never interfere when a bull is in heat. Even the ones with the mildest temperaments will turn nasty when you get in the way of them trying to mate. But it’s all part of the learning curve.”
He admits that being a cattle farmer has its own set of challenges: “Inexperienced cattle farmers tend to cause experienced ones indirect grief. They won’t closely supervise their cattle and instead let them run freely onto main roads, causing serious car accidents. Then we will collectively be blamed for that one farmer’s incompetence.”
Still, the cousins remain dedicated to their vocation. “It’s a family-oriented business above all,” says Meharaj. “We don’t know what the future holds but we will keep persevering because it’s a chance at preserving our grandfather’s legacy, and to make our own as well.”