Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Visit to Ontario Water Buffalo

Digression: look at that picture. Does that look like November to you? No, not to me neither. I like it though, I have to admit. So, where was this bucolic scene of strangely pleasant weather? It's just north of Stirling, at the home of Ontario Water Buffalo.

Ontario Water Buffalo is a farm owned by Lori Smith and Martin Littkemann. In 2008 they wanted to get back into milking. Dairy quota for cows, though, is both staggeringly expensive and rarely available. Then a friend of Martin's told him about water buffalo. "You can milk those?" he asked. Even better, he was put in touch with Quality Cheese, who had a yearning to make mozzarella di bufalo - mozzarella made with buffalo milk, the way it's done in Italy. With a willing and able purchaser, he and Lori went to a water buffalo conference in Italy and then began putting together their herd. Their first water buffalo came from a herd in Vermont. Additions were made with buffalo from British Columbia and Michigan. Today, they have about 200 head of water buffalo. That's Lori with one of the bulls; in fact, the bull.

These are some of the young males. Eventually, they will be sent to the butcher, and the meat will be available through the farm, or served in Kingston restaurants. There's also a distributor, Wendy's Mobile Market.

The stars of the show, though, are the milking buffalo. There are only about 30 being milked at any one time right now, although the milking barn has room for 40. Some of the reasons why that number is so low include the fact that of their 200 head, there are a number of males, there are a good number of heifers (female buffaloes not yet mature enough to breed) and a number of females that are dry. The buffalo being milked will produce for 8 or 9 months, an average of about 8 litres a day. The best milkers will produce up to 15 litres though, and the amount varies with time. Depending on where they are in their cycle, they will be milked once or twice per day.

Left to their own devices, water buffalo would breed in the late summer and calf the next summer. Cows have a nine month gestation period, but water buffalo are pregnant for over 10 months. However, because the farm needs to keep a steady flow of milk throughout the year, the goal is to have some water buffalo impregnated every month. Most are done through artificial insemination, but if that fails to take (about 20% of the total attempts) the gentleman in the second picture is called upon to take up the slack.

Water buffalo are calm, friendly and curious beasts. Unlike cows, who just aren't that into you, the water buffalo are all sure to come right up the fence as soon as you appear. They reminded me a bit of dogs - they wanted to sniff me, then lick my hand. That would be a 1000 pound dog, mind you. Water buffalo calves are about the same size as other calves when they are born; about 70 to 100 pounds. They are bigger, stronger animals as adults though, although they don't immediately seem that much bigger than cows. Lori quoted, "If you can't move it with horses, try oxen. If you can't move it with oxen, try water buffalo. If you can't move it with water buffalo - you need dynamite."

In Thailand (and other places), water buffalo are used as draft animals, but they also race them, although I'd say that's easier said than done by the looks of it.

Even though water buffalo originally hail from much warmer parts of the world, they handle cold weather just fine. They can come in and go out of shelter as they like, and they generally like to be out for part of the day in all but the very worst of winter weather. They have thick skins and plenty of hair; more of both than cows. In the summer they do need shade, especially the darker ones.

This picture cracks me up. Actually, the water buffalo in general cracked me up. I thought they were adorable, with their sweet curiosity and big rubbery noses that seemed to have a life of their own. It's not a word normally associated with farm animals, but there it is: they're adorable.

They're stocking up at the buffet here; later they will chew their cud, just like cows. Like cows, they also have 4 stomachs.

From a little distance, the farm looks much like any other cattle operation.

From close up, it's a different story. Oh that face! Oh that nose! Adorable!

The present barn is an old one, with a definite upper limit to the number of water buffalo that can be milked. Martin and Lori are making plans to replace it with a modern barn, where the buffalo can be rotated in and out, with (theoretically, anyway) no limit on the number that can be milked. In spite of the age of the barn, it was clean and sweet-smelling. Actually, Lori says that water buffalo are hypoallergenic. We certainly didn't have any reaction to them.

The barn was also home to a large group of the cleanest, friendliest barn cats I've ever encountered, including these three cute kittens. Lori is clearly an animal lover, and in addition to the friendly cats and the friendly water buffalo, there was a very friendly dog. I don't think I've ever been anywhere else where every critter was so happy to see me.

Cats asleep on the top of the "kitty condo". Lori fills cages with straw and covers them with blankets, and the cats stay in the barn all winter, and keep the mice away.

One of the calves in the barn, who are being monitored. This little calico cat was the friendliest of the bunch and escorted us on most of our tour.

The light colour of this calf shows that she has swamp buffalo characteristics. There are two kinds of water buffalo; swamp and river. The swamp are traditionally draft animals, and the riverine are better for milk. The herd here is mixed, but with more river buffalo in the blend, and as time goes on that's the emphasis of the breeding program. Lori and Martin keep very careful breeding records, as it's likely that at some point they will begin to sell water buffalo to other farmers who want to start milking them.

Grain feed and sawdust wait in the barn. In general, water buffalo eat much the same things as cows. However, great care must be taken with medications. Early North American water buffalo farmers found out the hard way that some of the antibiotics that are safe for cows will kill a water buffalo. The good news though, is that they are very hardy animals and much less prone to mastitis than cows.

Lori mentioned that water buffalo like to crowd together and lean on each other. If she or one of the farm workers are between two of them, they may get leaned on. Pushing won't get them to stop, they'll just lean harder because they think you like it too. A scoop of grain tossed between them will get them to separate, so they can get at the grain. They're more inclined to step on your feet than cows as well, or at least less likely to notice that they're doing it and stop. They may be very friendly, but they're still big, strong animals and must be treated with a lot of respect.

This isn't quite the start of the chain of stainless steel that leads to the refrigerated dairy case where you buy your cheese - that was stainless steel piping in the barn, going to each stall - but it's the first really noticeable piece. Milk is stored in this tank for pick up by Quality Cheese.

The milking apparatus hangs on the wall. Quality Cheese tests the milk as it arrives at their factory, but of course it's up to the farm to make sure that the milk is clean.

The start of water buffalo farming in Ontario has created a lot of excitement. Even though Lori and Martin have not had water buffalo for quite three years yet, there have already been two annual water buffalo festivals held in the area, which have had good turnouts. Look for next years' sometime in August, and in the mean time keep an eye out for that mozzarella di bufalo.

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