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0108 PD: Milking water buffalo: Same game, different players

Published on 21 December 2007

How can someone who milks water buffalo win a contest sponsored by a magazine for dairymen with traditional milk cows? The answer for Kent Underwood is simple: Milking water buffalo isn’t much different from milking a Holstein.

Underwood comes from a conventional dairying family and grew up in Arizona. He managed a commercial dairy herd in Wisconsin for three years prior to joining Woodstock Water Buffalo Co. in 2004 and relocating to Woodstock, Vermont. However, he stills owns, markets and shows cattle from his own registered Holstein herd located in Wisconsin. He now works full-time as manager over Woodstock’s 250-milking water buffalo herd and 350 replacements.

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“I didn’t know water buffalo existed outside of a zoo before I got here,” Underwood says. “In the U.S., water buffalo are a new animal for milking purposes, but outside the U.S. there is a well-established tradition for milking them.”

Underwood says 15 percent of the world’s milk production comes from water buffalo. Herd populations are concentrated in southeast Asia and Europe. There are about 5,000 water buffalo in the U.S.

“Most people would think that anything other than cow’s milk would taste like sheep or goat, which can have some pungent flavors. That’s not the case with water buffalo milk,” Underwood says.

Woodstock Water Buffalo is a farmstead creamery operating two separate milking parlors in Vermont. They manufacture authentic Italian mozzarella cheese (which is traditionally produced from water buffalo milk) and yogurt, which are sold under the Spoondance Creamery label in all U.S. states. Underwood says imported dairy products are the creamery’s largest competitors.

“I see water buffalo as more of a complement to our dairy industry than a competitor to conventional dairy producers,” he says.

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Dairy management techniques used in conventional herds also complement management styles used in water buffalo milking.

Underwood and his dairy milk their water buffalo in existing, vacated milking facilities and parlors. Conventional dairy cow milking systems are used without alteration to harvest water buffalo milk, and the animals are milked twice per day. The dairy’s breeding protocols rely on A.I., using imported semen from Italy. After calving, young stock are sent to be raised with other dairy replacements by a traditional dairy heifer grower.

“We’re essentially training a beef animal to be a dairy animal,” Underwood says.

However, it’s the differences between milking Holsteins and water buffalo that might make conventional dairy producers jealous.

Water buffalo produce far fewer pounds of milk per lactation (3,300 pounds), but their milk has 10 percent fat and 5 percent protein component levels. They also exhibit more longevity, living to be 18 to 25 years old and having between 10 to 15 lactations. (A water buffalo gestation period is 10.5 months.)

A ration low in energy and high in forage is optimal for water buffalo.

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“Our lactating diet looks like a Holstein dry cow diet on paper,” Underwood says. “That’s one of the benefits of water buffalo is feed efficiency.”

The ability to digest fiber 25 percent more efficiently than milk cows is what Underwood says makes water buffalo a perfect fit for Vermont, where there is a smaller supply of locally grown, high-energy grains. Underwood also says his dairy sees zero incidents of mastitis and metabolic disorders.

“More of our management time is spent getting them into a dairy routine instead of treating sick animals,” Underwood says.

He continues to focus his dairy’s management efforts on nutrition, animal health, reproduction and milk quality.

“In the general scheme of things, what we do is very similar to most dairy producers,” Underwood says. PD

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