European water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis subsp. river) currently provide 11% of the world’s milk supply and this volume is growing. While famous for mozzarella production in Italy, given their preference for wet climates and grass diets, they are no stranger to the UK, being kept for both milk and meat production.
Like cattle but not like cattle!
Like cattle, water buffalo are ruminant herbivore mammals. Although they perform well on high input intensive systems as seen in Italy; they can also thrive on low input, low-quality, fibrous forage, converting grass efficiently to milk and muscle. Water buffalo can digest rougher forages than cattle linked to having a higher rumen pH together with a larger population of rumen bacteria, particularly the cellulolytic bacteria.
Water buffalo cannot be crossed with other cattle or bison. While rotating bulls is the normal practice in UK, AI is also used. After a gestation period of ~310 days, buffalo will calve themselves and many herds have a 95-100 calving percentage. Buffalo are naturally fertile and will conceive within the 1st or second cycle with the bull. Cows can live up to 25-30 years reaching 500-750 kg lwt. Buffalo heifers mature early and like beef and dairy cows can be bulled successfully at ~13-14 months (buffalo ~280kgs LW) to calve down at 2 years old.
Buffalo need to be health monitored for all the things cattle are, such as BVD, TB, Johnes, IBR, Leptospirosis, Neospora etc. In general, buffalo are a more disease-resistant, worm resistant species requiring very little intervention. Unlike dairy cows, they have very few feet issues.
Diets and Grazing Management
In the UK, while there are farms that have complex concentrate diets and produce high yields >12 litres/day and good growth rates >1.5kg/day; these results have also been achieved on grass-based systems in established herds with good genetics. From a grazing perspective, generally, water buffalo can be reared on any grass system, including strip and rotational grazing and they respect and move well with an electric fence.
While the high melanin concentration in the skin of water buffalo provides them with increased protection against ultraviolet radiation; they have a less efficient evaporative cooling system than cattle due to their poor sweating ability. However, as their black skin is rich in blood vessels, it conducts and radiates heat efficiently making them cool off faster than cattle in the shade. Practical experience has shown that wallowing areas are not essential, but the buffalo will appreciate it if you can provide them mud scrapes and a water pool, especially on a hot day!
Buffalo are intelligent animals; they communicate via grunts and snorts but normally they are very quiet grazers and shed occupiers. While their inbuilt cooling system means that they do not need to have their backs shaved when housed for the winter, clipping tails helps to reduce the risk of mastitis.
Milking & milk Composition
Buffalo can be milked by robots, rotary, herringbone, or tandem parlours, but establishing suitable milking routines requires time and expertise as they differ from those used with cows. The lactation period is ~270 days. While highest yields are generally achieved during the 3rd lactation; buffalos have greater longevity than dairy cows with buffalo herds often having cows with 15 consecutive lactations.
Upside: Buffalo milk can be 25% milk solids linked to the very high fat content (~ twice that of a dairy cow’s milk) and the fat-to-protein ratio is about 2:1, with a higher casein-to-protein ratio.
Downside: average yield ~10 litres/day. The high calcium content of casein facilitates cheese making which is the dominate product from UK farms followed by ice cream and bottled milk. The raw milk can be worth from 75p/litre to over a £1/litre depending on contract and supply.
Calves and Buffalo Beef
Calf birth weights range from 35–45kg. While water buffalo have their iconic horns, many farmers for health and safety reasons dehorn calves at birth. Following 7 days colostrum/early milk, calves move onto a milk replacer (normally sheep milk) for 10 weeks – supplemented with hay and concentrates.
Beef calves are normally weaned from 6 months. Animals for beef can be finished at similar ages to cattle with both sexes’ fat at 20-30 months and at weights from 500–750kg depending on DLWG. In Italy, some finish at 14 months but at lower weights. Buffalo has a similar KO percentage to cattle at around 50% and are sold at prices in line or higher with the top cattle trade, the carcases go to retail or private sales. In Scotland there is only one abattoir that can kill buffalo.
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