Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Buffalo? They Can Walk on Water.

One of the questions that we often hear is: "Why water buffalo?"  There are a lot of ways to answer that. I'll skip the snarky ones to save time. For us, the answer is: because we find them fascinating.

For most people, meeting a water buffalo for the first time is a revelation. They are incredibly alert and interactive. If you've ever stood by a field where cattle are grazing, they probably didn't take much notice of you or if they did, they probably went back to eating as soon as they ascertained that you weren't an immediate threat. Water buffalo, however, will typically watch you with great interest and often will walk right up to you. Whether you're a threat or not, they want to check you out. And if they feel comfortable, it won't be long before they are trying to lick you, get a chin rub, or lean up against you. If they feel threatened (yes, I'm talking to you dogs), then that lean may involve the head, horns, and some serious pushing.

Even experienced cattle people who will tell you that some individual cows have lots of personality are often quite taken with the buffs. Some of our cattle-owning neighbors get a kick out of riding their ATVs by the pasture because the buffs always race them up and down the fence line. And they are quite good runners and jumpers. It's both heart-stopping and fascinating to watch them run up and down the hilly pastures at full speed. Their agility is remarkable and they cover a lot of ground quickly. That can be challenging when trying to get some work done in the barn without their help. They are very aware of what's going on all around them and they can sneak up quickly and quietly when they want to.

More often, however, they make funny little grunting noises when they are running toward something they really, really want (like food). Another endearing quality is the gentle huffing noises they make when they are content. They don't low or bellow or trumpet. They just make this gentle exhaling noise when they are eating or getting a tummy rub. Yes, they roll over for tummy rubs. How could you not love that? If that weren't enough to convince you, then you need to see/hear them when they blow bubbles in their water tank. And just look into those eyes.....

OK, so that's kind of the soft and fuzzy side of the answer. They're cute, smart, lovey, and they make us laugh. But what justifies the care, effort, and expense required to keep these huge animals? Do we really want or need 900 pound (and growing) pets? They're incredibly useful and versatile farm animals. They make great dairy animals as their milk is incredibly rich. The high butterfat content makes for spectacular cheese (e.g., buffalo mozzarella), yogurt, and ice cream though I have yet to be fortunate enough to try the latter. Our plan is to use the water buffalo for home dairy purposes (it's too expensive to try to set up a commercial dairy).

Water buffalo make for great eating, too, for those who eat meat. Much like bison, theirs is a very lean red meat. With about half the fat and cholesterol of beef, it's a relatively healthy choice for carnivores. I had the pleasure of dining on water buffalo tenderloin a couple of years ago and much as I wished Jim could have tasted it, the meat was so delicious I was kind of glad that I didn't have to share. If we end up with bull calves that no one wants to buy from us, then we will be filling our freezer with buffalo meat.

While we don't really have any call for it on our little farm, H2O buffs also make excellent draft animals (think oxen). More typical of the swamp variety of water buffalo, even our riverine buffs can be trained to handle hauling and plowing duties. People who've seen buffs at work in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia will probably have seen swamp buffalo with the horns out to there. One of the reasons that they are preferable to cattle in rice paddies is that their hooves are wider and don't sink into the mud as readily. Plus they are more resistant to hoof rot in wet environments.  Here's an image of a Thai farmer which I borrowed from the American Water Buffalo Association website.

working buffalo

Although it may be in large part due to the fact that water buffalo have not been factory farmed like cattle, they tend to be healthier and more disease-resistant than cattle. They are susceptible to many of the same diseases but often fare better. They are also more efficient at turning low quality forage into good nutrition meaning that they can survive on scrubby, weedy grassland where cattle would need grain supplementation.

For us, that means that the buffs eat a lot of vines and weeds. Not only are they helping to rehabilitate long-neglected pastures by keeping the weeds down but they are improving the soil quality with natural fertilizer. We don't have to add fertilizer or plow up whole pastures to re-seed with grass. That saves money, time, and fossil fuels.

If we lived in an area where invasive water vegetation was a problem, we'd use them for clearing it. The whole reason water buffalo were brought to the US in the 1970s was to help clear waterways in Florida. Water buffalo are excellent swimmers and are reported to be willing and able to dive as much as two meters underwater to get at vegetation. For our part, we're trying to keep the buffs out of the creeks here to prevent erosion of the banks and limit the amount of manure that ends up in the water (excessive nitrogen is not good for creek life).

Existing in climates ranging from the tropics of Asia to the frigid plains of Canada, water buffalo have proven to be highly adaptive--a quality that may become increasingly valuable with the weather extremes that climate change may bring. They do need a bit of shelter from extreme conditions--access to water or shade in the heat and protection from wind and wet in the cold--but with just a bit of care, they can do quite well.

Are they perfect? No, of course not. Like all animals, they have their challenges. The upside is they're smart. The downside is they're smart. Much like dogs, the smart ones are often harder to handle because they're harder to fool. They can be stubborn. And their heat cycles are often short and silent (not showing signs) which can make breeding by artificial insemination a bit more challenging than with cattle (the bulls know when the cows are in heat even if the humans can't see the signs so the old-fashioned way of breeding works fine). And they are huge, powerful animals with horns. Even a good-natured, well-intentioned buffalo could do some serious harm just by swinging its massive head around when you're not paying attention. And not all of them are equally good natured. They most definitely have individual personalities which can vary greatly.

Do they walk on water? Yes. If it's frozen. They continue to surprise me nearly every day. This week, when the creek between the main pasture and the Booth was frozen solid, they seemed to avoid it. Then one day, there they were--at the top of the Booth, soaking up what few rays of sun were to be had. I feared that they had skidded across the ice and gotten stuck on the wrong side of the creek away from food and water. I took some water across to them. No sooner had they lapped it up than they came back across the ice to see if I'd brought more goodies. Not one of them slipped or skidded. They walked across the ice as if they'd been doing it all their lives. Actually, better than I ever walked on ice and I have been doing it all my life.

They are strange and wondrous creatures and that's why we have them.


  1. I love this post! You've described them perfectly.

  2. Any boy buffs born to the herd will be named "Chuck", as that's what we plan to turn them into.

  3. You had all my support and love as Auntie to the buffs until you talked about my nephew buffs becoming buff burgers. Either way, they do sound fascinating, or it could just be your blog. I bet if I wrote about the same animals it wouldn't be half as interesting.