BATHAN, Bangladesh -- A herdsman repeatedly calls the name Rasdhani out over a herd of several hundred cows in this peaceful grassy plain upriver from the Milk Vita plant in northeast Bangladesh. After five minutes a cow responds to its name and comes into view walking purposefully towards the milking station. Rasdhani means "capital" and that is exactly how the 40 000 farmers in the Milk Vita Cooperative think of their cows.

"Raising milk cows is more profitable than producing crops," says Mohammed Moazzam Hossain, 35, a successful farmer with 25 cows and 15 bulls and bullock calves. "I started with 5 cows 10 years ago, and have culled 50 beasts over the years. With the money I buy land, I pay for education for the children. I am very interested that they go to university. I have a high school education myself, and one of my children is already in high school."

The milk, collected daily in this dry season pasturage, moves quickly down river in urns carried by long, flat motor boats, arriving at a modern plant at Baghabarighat, where it is processed. Taken by tanker to the capital city of Dhaka, the fresh milk is packaged and delivered to retailers and shops by a fleet of 300 "milkshaws", rickshaws converted to carry insulated boxes.

Milk Vita managers say that Dhaka, with a population of 10 million, consumes 100 000 litres of milk a day from all sources, and demand far exceeds supply.

Ten percent of village has university degree

Accordingly, the farmers in this 45-square-kilometre "milkshed", the area within which milk producers supply a single processing plant, have "milk fever". And they have the know-how, the veterinary and breeding support and the ambition to keep expanding.

"I want a big farm," Hussain Kabir, 32, says assertively, standing in his modest compound with his wife and child in the milk village of Potazia. "My father was a farmer with two acres. I wanted a job. I couldn't find one so I made my own. Milk Vita helped me with their medical team, cattle feed at cost, artificial insemination services, vaccinations. I only have two cows now so I am not yet independent, but I'm working on it," he concludes.

Potazia throbs with activity at eight in the morning. In nearly every household, someone is busy milking a cow. The milk is collected in urns in the square nearest the entry road, each family's contribution noted in a lined notebook. The milk is then hauled by rickshaw the 10 kilometres to the plant before the day gets too hot.

Farmers are the driving force

"In the early 1970s we started with only 15 members," says Alhaj Mohammed Huq, the chairman of the village milk cooperative society, the local unit of the larger cooperative. "It took a lot of time to convince them to get involved. People believe what they see. All the services, like artificial insemination, seemed like just promises. But when people saw that the coop could deliver on its promises and offered a good price, the movement started to grow. Now there are 340 members."

As a result, he adds, "now 60 percent of people in the village have basic education and 10 percent have a university degree or higher, 100 percent paid for by milk."

Jharna Begum joined the cooperative society 10 years ago with her husband. "With the milk money I can spend more on school and daily life. I buy new foods like apples, bananas, oranges and even grapes brought from India," she says.

Dr. Mohammad Abdul Barik, a veterinarian and Deputy General Manager at Milk Vita, oversees the 390 cooperative societies in the milkshed. The farmers, he says, are very much the driving force in Milk Vita.

"They keep after us," he notes. "'Give us better breeds', they say. 'Give us better feed.' They want to expand."

August 2002