If you raise cows, don’t go rushing to diversify your herd with water buffalo. Although a bovine species, they can’t interbreed with cows or bison, they don’t graze in the same way and can’t be fed the same rations. They do best with access to water and mud, their horns serve to regulate body temperature, and they go feral quickly.
“They are very similar to cattle, but very different,” said Jessica Farrar, who raises these majestic animals along with her husband, Brian. “Our advice to anyone interested in water buffalo is for them to do their homework.”
The herd of 30 water buffalo at Maine Water Buffalo Company, in Appleton, Maine — 10 cow/calf pairs, seven yearlings, one young heifer, one bull and one pet steer — roam together on 50 acres of pasture, and enjoy a pond and a mud wallow. With the addition of a milking barn and a creamery, the family’s product line has been growing along with their herd.
“An adult water buffalo that hasn’t been handled can be quite intimidating and dangerous, and not the kind of animal that we want to climb underneath and milk,”Farrar said. “Many water buffalo farms start with dairy and then need an outlet for their male calves,” Farrar said. “We did the opposite, meanwhile, getting to know our animals while we sold meat, raising some beautiful heifers hands-on, who are now our calm milking girls.”
The calves are tied in front of their mothers during milking. The cows are given a small amount of grain in the stanchions. Both practices serve to keep the animals, who weigh over a ton at four year of age, calm. The herd is currently milked once each day. The calves are nursed by the mothers in the morning, keeping the herd healthy and avoiding the use of milk replacers. Each evening, the cows are milked via portable vacuum pump, with an output of about 1/2 gallon each.
“In the future, as the business grows, we plan to incorporate a dairy cow to be a nurse cow to help with raising the water buffalo calves,” Farrar said. They then will be able to milk twice per day, while simultaneously keeping calves on milk.
Jessica Farrar is the cheese maker and is continually expanding her knowledge and ability to offer a variety of high-quality cheeses and dairy products. Although mozzarella di bufala is a big “foodie” hit, other products have found popularity.
“We are finding that there is also a demand for many other water buffalo products that we had not anticipated making when we started this journey, “ Farrar said. Yogurt, ricotta, feta, kefir, butter and gelato are all in demand.
Raising the Herd
Water buffalo have a long gestation period of 10 1/2 months. Heifers calve at about two years of age. The species, Farrar said, is considered genetically pure. They have small babies, and multiple births are rare. None of the 28 births at the farm have required assistance.
The family is looking to switch to spring calving to coordinate the abundance of fresh milk with the farmers markets seasonal schedule. “The farmers market sales in Maine slow down dramatically in the winter because the summer folks have gone home, but no one let our girls know,” Farrar joked. “As we progress with our milking we will have to hold off from the fall breeding in order to get them all calving in the spring.”
Water buffalo have less sweat glands than cattle, and in areas of high temperatures, water is needed to cool down. In Maine, the water is not a necessity, but the animals enjoy it. There is mud wallow on the farm, which was created by the animals themselves, digging out a damp area with their horns.
“They roll in this mud and get every inch of themselves covered, which helps to protect them from bugs as well as the sun. We provide a pond for our herd, where you will find them on most hot days,” Farrar said. “It is only about thigh high, but they go in and lay down and walk around on their knees in it. They dunk their heads under the water and blow bubbles.”
The animals prefer to graze on shorter pastures than do cattle, and can be stocked more densely. They will forage grasses and leaves which cattle won’t eat, are more efficient in utilizing their feed.
Paving New Paths
“There are very limited professionals who know anything about water buffalo in the United States,” Farrar said. “Being involved with the daily care for the animals has been the best education for us, and we believe it actually makes water buffalo farmers the professionals in the United States. Learn about water buffalo and how they are different than traditional cattle. Speak to other water buffalo farmers and, if possible, go visit other water buffalo farm.”
The family has found a veterinarian, but he, too, is learning about the differences between cattle and water buffalo.
Self-educating, and growing the business slowly while learning how best to meet the needs of the animals has been the family’s motto, and it has paid off. With a thriving dairy products and meat business, the family has built a demand which has grown more quickly than their ability to fill the need. They sell to restaurants and stores, as well as directly to the consumer at farmers markets and off the farm.
“We have done a lot of foot work to educate people about water buffalo meat and created a market for it where there wasn’t any before. They dairy is a bit more well known, so that has been an easier transition,” Farrar said.
Their meat is all USDA slaughtered and inspected, and sold in retail cuts. The meat is comparable in taste, but milder than locally-raised beef. It is also a healthier alternative, with 93 percent less saturated fat, 32 percent less cholesterol and 9 percent more protein. With a similar taste and softer texture, it is easy for beef eaters to love. Because water buffalo store fat differently than cattle, any fattening up with grain only results in fat accumulation on the outer edge of the carcass, not in marbling.
“We have built our business around our animals, so any products produced by them is just an added bonus,” Farrar said. “We want to stay focused on our customers without growing too big, too fast. The United States has hardly scratched the surface of the water buffalo industry, so we feel like there is still plenty of room for more water buffalo business in the market, not only for dairy and meat, but for hides and horns.”