Like most livestock breeds around the world, the Ongoles take their name from the region of their main breeding area - the Ongole Taluka. Until 1904, this tract was in the Nellore District; hence the breed was called "Nellore" by foreigners. However, the natives always called them Ongole after the region in which they are predominantly bred (see Figure 2) (Gunn, 1909).
There is no clear picture of the various stages that went into the making of this breed of cattle. Carvings of the Nandhi bull, which adorn Hindu Sivaite temples in India, bear a true resemblance to the Ongole (Figure 3). From this it can be seen that the characteristics of this breed were fairly fixed even at the beginning of recorded history.
The Ongoles are very fine and majestic-looking cattle, huge in size, extremely docile and suitable for steady, heavy draught. Their performance has been admirable under varying conditions and they are one of the most unique triple-purpose cattle of the tropics, serving well as draught, milk and meat animals. By virtue of their adaptability traits and superior productive capacity under harsh tropical conditions, they have been very much sought after and beneficial in tropical cattle production (Ready, 1925; Murari, 1956; FAO, 1953).
1. Geographical distribution of various indigenous cattle breeds in India and of Ongole cattle in the world - Répartition géographique de différentes races de bovine en Inde et des bovine Ongolé dans le monde - Distribución geográfica de diversas razas de vacunos indígenas en la India y de los vacunos Ongole en el mundo
1.1 International distribution of Ongole cattle
1.2 Indian cattle breeds
2. An Ongole bull - Taureau Ongolé - Toro Ongole
3. A third century Nandhi bull - note the alertness and similarity of the Ongole bull to the Nandhi - Taureau Nandhi du troisième siècle. Noter la vivacité et la ressemblance entre le taureau Nandhi et l'Ongolé - Toro Nandhi del siglo III d.C. Obsérvese la posición de alerta y la semejanza entre el toro Ongole y el Nandhi
The best Ongoles in India have been bred in those parts where there has been no assured irrigation or commercial crops, leaving cattle raising as the only profitable proposition since, under these conditions, the dependence on crops or cultivation has not been economically viable. Instead, the Ongoles have brought income through the sale of young bull calves and ghee (clarified butter) made from their milk.
The earliest published description of the Ongole cattle available is that in Short (1885). According to Dr John Short: "The breed of cattle from [Nellore] has also been long celebrated, not so much as draught cattle as for the milking qualities of the females, for which purpose Nellore cows are greatly esteemed-and fetch large prices. A good specimen of the Nellore breed is a huge animal standing from 15 to 17 hands in height, with a noble but heavy look [...] their power of draught and spirit of endurance are great, they are generally docile and slow in movements, and from their form and horns, are readily recognized. The horns are short and stumpy, barely 3 to 6 inches in length, and never, unless in exceptional instances, exceeding 12 inches - inclined outwards, tapering to a blunt point. Countenance, dull; eyes, large, prominent and heavy looking; face, short with greater breadth of forehead and muzzle, large lop ears; eyes, hoof and tail tuft, black; head, erect and well carried on a short stout neck rising over the withers into a huge hump which frequently inclines to one side; back, short and straight; tail, high and well set; a fair depth and width of chest; carcass, compact and solid looking, with a large dewlap; legs, clean but massive, straight and fairly apart to support the carcass; skin, fine and covered with soft, short hair; prevailing colour, white.
"From their docility, the nose string is seldom used. They are noble and handsome looking animals, but there is a tendency in the breed to grow tall and leggy with a spare light carcass. Their powers of draught are great, and when well bred they draw much heavier loads than most other breeds, from 1 500 to 2 000 pounds on a fair road. They are chiefly used for draught in carts and with the plough, their-weight and size being against their use as pack bullocks generally.
"The cows, as has been said, are excellent milkers, some of them have been known to yield 18 quarts of good rich milk in 24 hours (a quart being equivalent to 24 ounces), and they rear a calf at the same time. The influence of this breed extends north as far as the Krishna District.
"The price of a first class cow is about 200 rupees, as much as 300 rupees have been paid for a prize cow. Bulls have been imported into other districts at 300 and 350 rupees each."
A point to observe is the price of a quality cow and bull; both are almost equally priced. This shows how economically important the Ongole cow was (Figures 4 and 5).
The Brahmini bull
Any account of the early development of the Ongole cattle would be incomplete without mentioning the institution of the Brahmini bull in the Ongole breeding area. There is no doubt that this practice made the breed what it is, prior to the organized efforts of the various departments of colonial India.
From very early times, there has been a custom in the Ongole breeding tract of dedicating a good stud bull to the local deity. For example, when a well-to-do villager died, on the fourteenth day of the funeral ceremony the family would select the best young bull they could find and present it as an offering to the god. This bull then became the property of the village.
A committee of leading cattle breeders was formed to assist in the selection of this bull. The selection process was very rigid: the committee paid special attention to each of the qualities that they thought a good stud bull should possess and searched far and wide for such a superior bull. The young bull finally selected was branded at the funeral ceremony and then set free. It became the sire of the village herd and was allowed to enter any crop field. If it entered a farmstead, the farmer had no alternative but to feed it until it left.
This custom had a socio-religious as well as an economic function, as is the case with most Hindu customs, clearly showing the community sense for livestock improvement that already existed in villages from very early times.
The recent history of Ongole cattle development in India may be divided into four periods: 1858-1932,1932-1958, 1958-1980 and 1981 onwards.
The Ongole cattle development that took place prior to this period mainly resulted from the beneficial effect of the Brahmini bull system, which had been practiced in the Ongole breeding area for generations. The local farmers' dependence on these cattle made them pay more attention to their breeding.
Because of the breed's economic importance to the farmers of the region, the Nellore District Collector started the Ongole Cattle Show in 1858 to encourage the breeding of good-quality Ongoles in the breeding zone. This event was conducted annually until 1871, with the 12 shows serving to inculcate a competitive spirit in the Ongole cattle breeders. The great pride that the prizewinning cattle brought to their breeders as well as to the village boosted the quality of the Ongole breed and of the sires and dams used in villages of the area. The shows were a great encouragement for small and big breeders alike to produce better stock.
In addition to these shows, in 1867 the government laid down a principle that, out of its uncultivated land, each village should reserve for common grazing an area equivalent to 30 percent of its land under cultivation, thereby providing additional pastureland for the Ongoles.
4. Characteristics of the breed - Caractéristiques de la race - Características de la raza
Masculine features - Caractères mâles - Rasgos masculinos
Feminine features - Caractères femelles - Rasgos femeninos
Size, frame, correct feet and legs - Taille, ossature, aplombs - Tamaño, configuración, pies y patas correctos
Longevity: cows, 20 years and more - Longévité (20 ans et plus) - Longevidad: en las vacas, 20 años o más
Uniformity and predictability - Uniformité et répétabilité - Uniformidad y predecibilidad
5. Selection of the Ongoles over a century - Un siècle de sélection de l'Ongolé - Selección de la raza Ongole durante un siglo
Ongole bull of 1880 - Taureau Ongolé, 1880 - Toro Ongole de 1880
Ongole bull of 1909 - Taureau Ongolé, 1909 - Toro Ongole de 1909
Ongole bull of 1992 - Taureau Ongolé, 1992 - Toro Ongole de 1992
Because of the lack of an assured irrigation source, the local farmers took to Ongole cattle breeding as a source of income, selling young bull calves and ghee while raising rain-fed crops such as sorghum, millet and legumes as their food crops. Residues of these crops also served as supplement feed for the cattle.
Then came crops such as chilli and tobacco, which did not need irrigation but were produced using the residual soil moisture after the rainy season. Consequently, hitherto uncultivated pastureland that was used to raise Ongole cattle herds started being planted with these two crops. This had a twofold affect on Ongole breeding: the crops encroached on the pastureland that sustained the Ongole herds while their residues were unsuitable to be fed to livestock, thus putting enormous pressure on the Ongole herds in the breeding tract.
With this change in the cropping pattern, the channels of trade from the villages in the area to the cities improved rapidly. With Ongoles being the only breed of cattle in southern India with dairy potential, and with the higher price that milk fetched in the cities, cows and heifers in calf started being sold to the city dairies, never to return to the area again. In this way, the high-producing cows of the breed, instead of being multiplied as was done when they were milked in their original tract for the production of ghee, were regularly removed from the breeding area. This was a great strain on the Ongole milch herds.
To help improve the Ongoles in the breeding tract, a key village scheme was launched by the state government at two places in the main Ongole breeding zone in 1952 and at two more places in 1956. In the area covered by this scheme, all scrub bulls were castrated and Ongole cattle development was taken up using artificial insemination (AI) in order to use the good sires extensively. To provide an additional boost to the breeding operation, bulls were stationed at several centres under various schemes such as the Premium Scheme, District Board Scheme and Free Bull Distribution Scheme.
With the expansion of the key village scheme in the State of Andhra Pradesh in 195 8, the use of AI increased rapidly and, as district liquid semen banks were established, the bulls stationed at the villages under the various schemes were withdrawn.
By the year 1963/64, India received a number of aid programmes for livestock development from various countries that were advanced in livestock farming. These aid programmes brought not only technology but also the particular Bos taurus breeds that were native to the donor countries. With the stationing of the Bos taurus sires at the district liquid semen banks, there began the large-scale, indiscriminate introduction of their blood into the valuable pure-bred herds of Ongole stock.
At the height of this cross-breeding craze, not even the Department of Animal Husbandry's Ongole herds, which had been selected for more than half a century for better milk yield a reduced intercalving period and early maturity, were spared. This was the greatest harm that could have been done to the valuable Ongole cattle herds.
Two other great blows to the Ongoles during this period came with the Land Ceiling Acts. These acts restricted the size of the landholding of farmers and removed the exemption allowed for pastureland until then. To add to this, the land set apart for community grazing was distributed to the weaker economic sections for housing and cultivation. Thus, the breeding of Ongole cattle in their homeland was subject to very severe stress.
In addition to these constraints and pressures that the Ongoles face in their homeland, another great obstacle is that many of the remaining good Ongole sires from villages of the breeding area are being bought by Latin Americans and taken away from the breeding area, while their semen is frozen and unofficially shipped out to Latin America. These sires will never return to the area again (Figure 6). This operation has tightened the noose around the neck of the Ongoles by obstructing their development in their homeland.
In spite of the onslaught on the Ongole cattle on various fronts in their homeland, there are still a considerable number of farmers in the breeding area who hold the Ongoles very close to heart, spending a lot of money in buying and maintaining the best available Ongoles and taking great pride in showing them.
For the first time after almost half a century, the Ongole Cattle Show was revived in March 1981. Coinciding with this show, a seminar was held to discuss the reasons for the sad state of the Ongoles in their homeland while they predominated in numbers and performance and spread like wildfire in the tropics of the Americas. An important outcome of this 1981 meeting was the formation and registration of the Indian Ongole Cattle Breeders' Association.
With the formation of the association, there was a forum to take up the cause of the Ongoles with the various governments and governmental agencies. The outcome of this crusade has been the Ongole Cattle Germplasm Scheme (Figure 7), which was started in 1986 and has its headquarters at Lam Farm in Guntur, and the setting up of four Ongole herds comprising 250 breedable cows each.