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Where the water buffalo roam

By Staff | Jan 8, 2010

This young blond buffalo, on right, and his companions are dressed for the cold on Jeff Mease's Indiana farm.

For most people, a mention of water buffalo conjures images of the African savannah, perhaps accompanied by a calm voice, “Watch now, as Jim flings himself from the helicopter into the midst of the herd ” Those ferocious-looking animals from the Wild Kingdom are a completely different species than the docile, easily led animals that have come to grace water buffalo farms in the United States.

“They respond just like a dairy cow,” says Kent Underwood, self-proclaimed “Water Buffalo Guru” and former manager of Vermont Water Buffalo.

“They’re more of a flight animal than a fight. A lot of people get them mixed up with the Cape Buffalo in Africa, but they really are more of a companion animal.”

At home in many lands

The water buffalo of the world are classified into two main groups, the Asian and the African. The African species, the Cape Buffalo, has huge horns that join in the center to look like parted hair. For clarity, what we tend to call the North American Buffalo are really Bison, which are more closely related to cattle than to Asian water buffalo.

Sporting the distinctive horns of the River Buffalo, this cow is part of Bufala di Vermon't milking operation.

The wild Asian water buffalo is an endangered species, from which the domesticated water buffalo was tamed around 5,000 years ago.

Since then, two main types of domestic water buffalo have found prominence. The swamp type is mainly found in China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Uniquely suited to hotter climates, they are primarily draft and meat animals, and they have broad, wide horns, lighter-colored legs and large hooves. River Buffalo originated in India and Pakistan. They have been bred toward dairy production, though they also provide meat and power. River Buffalo have more curled horns, hold their heads higher than their swamp brethren and are the preferred type for milk production. Large herds live in Bulgaria, Romania and Italy.

U.S. breeders get into the act

In 1975, researchers at the University of Florida thought water buffalo might be the answer to an aquatic weed problem. They were able to import just four animals from a Canadian game park to test this idea, and they were inspired by the adaptability and strength of these animals.

In 1976, Smithsonian magazine published, “Why Not a Tractor that Provides Meat, Cheese and Love?” The response to the article was enthusiastic, and it drew the attention of A.P. Leonards, who was to become one of the major forces in water buffalo importation.

With great persistence, he imported 53 Swamp Buffalo from Guam and then 96 River Buffalo from Trinidad. In 1984, Leonards sent a few animals to Berry College to establish a herd there, and the American Water Buffalo Association was founded there in 1986. Since then their numbers have grown to 5,000 to 7,000.

Mozzarella for the masses

In the 21st century, many U.S. buffalo herds have been moving toward dairy use. Annually, the U.S. imports around 100,000 pounds of mozzarella di bufala, the water buffalo’s best-known and highest priced product. It’s a cheese that’s best fresh, so it often makes the trip by overnight jet, sold to restaurants and cheese shops for as much as $30 per pound.

Water buffalo owners are getting into the act to provide a domestic source for this delicacy.

The milk has other benefits as well. Water buffalo milk has higher butterfat content than cow’s milk, with 58 percent more calcium, 40 percent more protein and 43 percent less cholesterol.

It is pure white and smooth, and reportedly not as pungent as sheep or goat milk. It also seems easier to digest for many of those with a cow-milk allergy.

Though the milk is highly sought after, each animal’s output is smaller than a dairy cow. They can, however, be milked more times in their lives than their cattle counterparts – 10 to 15 lactations with a 10 1/2-month gestation period.

Because of the high amount of milk solids, less buffalo milk is required to make similar amounts of cheese, and you can make approximately four times the amount of ghee (clarified butter) from buffalo milk.

Adaptable and hardy

Originally, water buffalo in the U.S. were bred for meat. These unique animals have many positive traits that made them a good choice. Their history in Southeast Asia as a subsistence-level farm animal has served them well. They are highly adaptable, their digestive system is more efficient than a cow’s, and they can thrive on mediocre-quality forage.

Buffalo also come with resistance to parasites, longevity – a lifespan of 18 to 25 years – and a low rate of calving difficulties.

Water buffalo meat is leaner than beef with about one-quarter the amount of fat and half the cholesterol, and their health and equipment needs are similar to those of cattle.

Excerpted from GRIT, Celebrating Rural America Since 1882. To read more articles from GRIT, visit www.Grit.com. Copyright 2009 by Ogden Publications Inc.

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