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Rural Insight: Buffalo offer unique land use option

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Free range chickens, goats or even ostriches have all been possible options for small block holders and farmers seeking out a viable income source for their smaller parcel of land.

But it could be the answer lies in an animal more New Zealanders would have seen overseas than they have ever seen at home.

The swamp buffalo is typically matched to tropical, subsistence farming, but its milking cousin is a vital part of many economies including Italy and Spain, thanks to its ability to produce exceptionally healthy, high value milk and milk products.  

Tony Grindle, Bayleys general  manager for Northland sold a property intended for buffalo production several years ago.

“It is not the most common land use option you would see on smaller blocks. However it is another option out there, and if you are prepared to commit to it, and are maybe seeking something a little different from the usual small block options, then buffalo could be a way to make that property investment pay.”

As New Zealand starts to reach its limits in terms of dairy cow numbers thanks in part to environmental pressures, the opportunities around “non-cow” milk and dairy products is starting to expand.

Milking goats have long been part of the landscape in the Waikato, thanks to the quiet, careful expansion by the Dairy Goat Co-operative, and now sheep are starting to gain a foot hold with support from corporate farmer Landcorp.

But milking buffalo remain a quirkier, less prominent land use option that is proving a winning business solution for some operators who have decided to take the beast by the horns, learning to farm it and to market its dairy products.

“Milking buffalo offers a quirkier land use option that is proving a winning business solution for some operators.”

The history of milking buffalo in New Zealand goes back to efforts by the then Ministry for Agriculture to import the animals in the early 2000s.  

The ministry wanted to import the animals to study their potential for embryo transplants. However they could not be imported directly from Asia due to foot and mouth disease concerns. In 2007 a small herd was imported from Australia.

But because they were a meat focussed swamp buffalo breed, it has taken the efforts of a small band of dedicated farmers to cross them with the right genetics to deliver an animal suitable for commercial buffalo dairy production.

Today two companies are working independently on buffalo dairy production, one south of Auckland near Clevedon, the Clevedon Valley Buffalo company, and one north near Matakana, the Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese company.

Pam Wills, part owner of the Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese company says prospects for the big beasts’ dairy production has never been more positive.

She and her husband Chris, along with daughter Annie and her husband Phil Armstrong started farming the animals eight years ago when they partnered up sharing their skills and commitment to make a 20ha block near Pakiri beach pay its way.  

They had seen the buffalo being milked in Italy and in Africa before coming home and importing buffalos from Queensland.

Pam says the operation has had continuous strong demand for milk from their 115 head herd that includes 50 milking cows. Some of the milk is supplied through organic shops but the majority goes to restaurants who also form a keen customer base for the cheese they produce.

“Some of the milk is supplied through organic shops, but the majority goes to restaurants who form a keen customer base for the cheese they produce.”

Consisting of a blue cheese, a hard cheese and an ash rolled brie, there is no sign of demand slowing as diners clamour for locally produced, “different” food products that have their own story behind them.

Buffalo milk is rich in nutrients and can be a preferred option for people who cannot tolerate cows milk. It offers 58% more calcium than cow’s milk, 40% more protein and is 43% lower in cholesterol. It also rich in A2 protein.

Local cheesemaker Jo Barnes has plenty of experience working with the milk from Whangaripo’s buffalo.

“It is a very nutrient rich milk, with high milk solids at about 20% compared to 8-9% for cow’s milk. People like it as a low allergy option to goat’s milk, and the cheeses you can make from it a varied, from Haloumi through to Mozzarella and a hard Pecorino.”

Pam’s son in law Phil Armstrong shares ownership with her and husband Chris. He says the family is keen to get more buffalo farmers supplying milk, and have over 30 animals available for sale as a herd.

“We have a few people interested, and the challenge for them is to find the right sized piece of land. About 20-40ha is a good size to generate what can be quite a good income for a family prepared to work at it.”

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