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.”
The buffalo of the world are classified into two main groups, the Asian and the African. The African species, the Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) mentioned above, 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. The wild Asian water buffalo is an endangered species, from which the domesticated water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) 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.
The history of the water buffalo in Italy is cloaked in mystery with hypotheses that suggest the animals were introduced to Europe in the seventh century by invading Goths, in the Middle Ages by returning Crusaders, or even that they originated on Italian soil. In any case, water buffalo are entwined with Italian food, providing milk for mozzarella di bufala (most often produced in southern Italy, chiefly in Campania), a cheese prized for its taste and texture.
With an estimated world population of around 168 million animals in 50 countries, water buffalo vary greatly in size based on their environment. When food is scarce, buffalo tend to be smaller. Adult females range from 770 pounds high in the Himalayas to 1,750 pounds in Bulgaria and Italy. In poorer agricultural settings, a water buffalo can be an important asset to a family, providing milk, meat and pulling power.
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. This small but determined group in Florida then managed to get Smithsonian magazine to print an article in 1976, titled “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.
Originally, water buffalo in the United States 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 (fencing, milking) needs are similar to those of cattle.
In the 21st century, many U.S. buffalo herds have been moving toward dairy use. Annually, the United States 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 10½-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.
Folks who spend time with water buffalo remark on their placid, docile nature, which makes them easy to handle. They offer healthy meat and milk and thrive well on forage. Maybe one should roam near your home.
Unique animals intrigue Senior Associate Editor Jenn Nemec, and if there’s yummy cheese in the bargain, all the better.
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