Buffalo

25.05.17

The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a domesticated relative of wild buffalo found in Asia. Water buffalo have been associated with people since prehistoric times. They have many uses, and in Asia even though it is primarily a dairy animal, it is also an important source of meat, draft power and leather. The greatest numbers in the world reside in India, Pakistan and China.

Water buffalo were introduced to Australia throughout the 1800s from Indonesia, initially as draught animals and to provide meat for new settlements in the Northern Territory.

Overview

The large free-range population of buffalo endemic to northern Australia in modern times is the result of escaped or abandoned animals from the original outposts. At its peak in the 1980s, the wild population was believed to be 350,000 head but was dramatically reduced by the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign operations.

Water buffalo in Australia are the same species as domesticated buffalo found in Asia, parts of Europe and South America but a different species to those found in Africa and North America. Globally, there are three main types of domesticated water buffalo. While the wild herd in Australia is mostly swamp buffalo (native to South East Asia), commercial herds are based on swamp buffalo, riverine buffalo (dairy buffalo from India and Pakistan) and crosses between the two. The third type, the Mediterranean buffalo, was directly imported by one Australian operator and has been used extensively by others to upgrade their herds using imported Italian dairy semen.

Water buffalo are large-hooved animals that typically stand at 1.5–1.9m high at the shoulder and are 2.4–3.6m in length. Males (bulls) can weigh up to 1,200kg and females (cows) up to 900kg. Farmed buffalo can live up to 29 years.

They are farmed in the Northern Territory and all states of Australia for livestock, meat and milk. Live animals are exported to South East Asia as slaughter and breeding stock, and have been exported to New Zealand, Chile, Japan, South Africa and Qatar for dairy stock. Buffalo meat is recognised for its leanness and low cholesterol content. Buffalo milk is used to produce high quality mozzarella cheese, yoghurt and other dairy products.

Demand for livestock is growing, as is consumer demand for buffalo meat and milk. The development of a meat industry is limited as there are few export or halal registered abattoirs and very few abattoirs willing or able to process buffalo for the domestic market.

In several states or local government areas of Australia, including Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, the buffalo is classified as a pest species and a permit is required from the state department of primary industry or a local authority to keep and breed them.

The Australian Buffalo Industry Council represents eight state associations and associate members to encourage industry research and development, as well as represent the industry at a national level.

Facts and figures

  • Farming buffalo requires a permit or licence in all states and territories except the Northern Territory and farming is banned in some locations, such as the Kimberley in Western Australia
  • Australian commercial herds are the swamp and riverine types of water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) or various crosses of both
  • Farming is very similar to farming beef and dairy cattle, and buffalo are much more efficient at converting poor feed to energy than cattle
  • While good markets exist for live export and buffalo milk, meat production is limited by the lack of abattoir facilities willing to slaughter buffalo
  • They are considered a pest species in some states and on-farm animals must be registered annually and all trade of livestock requires state government permits

Production status

Buffalo are farmed in the Northern Territory and all states of Australia. Domestication of feral buffalo (the swamp buffalo introduced to Australia in the 1800s) commenced in the 1970s and since the 1990s, riverine buffalo have been imported for dairy and beef enterprises, and for cross-breeding with domesticated swamp buffalo.

The Northern Territory is the most significant production region. Buffalo are milked for dairy products in the Northern Territory, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. Buffalo are also slaughtered for meat in most regions; however the extent of this meat production is limited by the number of abattoirs available and willing to offer services to producers.

The nature of buffalo production enterprises varies from large farms with many hundreds or thousands of head to small farms with 30 or so animals. A few dairy buffalo operations are vertically integrated, selling milk and producing cheese under their own label; while others deliver milk to established cheese makers.

Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Buffalo in Australia is farmed to produce animals for live export and to produce meat and milk. Live animals are exported to Asia for use as breeding animals and for slaughter.

Buffalo meat has generally less than 2% fat and compared with other meats is comparatively low in cholesterol, making buffalo meat a lean and healthy option. The fat composition of buffalo meat has a higher proportion of polyunsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids than in chicken, lamb or beef. Additionally, buffalo meat is very high in protein, iron and zinc content.

Slaughtered buffalo is prepared in the same manner as beef, with prime cuts, processed products and fancy meats sourced from the slaughtered animal.

Depending on the cut, buffalo meat is suitable for frying, grilling and roasting, as well as for use in stews, pies and casseroles. As with most lean meats, buffalo should be cooked for shorter times than would be done for beef to retain the natural moisture in the muscle.

Buffalo milk can be used in the same way as cow’s or goat’s milk. The main use for buffalo milk, due to its high milk solids (twice that of cow’s milk), is to produce dairy products — especially mozzarella cheese, yoghurt, fetta, labna and ice cream (gelato).

Compared with other milks, buffalo milk has significantly lower levels of cholesterol and higher levels of calcium than cow, sheep or goat milk. Buffalo milk is also a rich source of iron, phosphorus, vitamin A and protein. Buffalo milk is also suitable for people who suffer cow’s milk allergy.

Historically, water buffalo were harvested for their hides, an industry based on harvest of wild animals that lasted until the 1950s when synthetics replaced buffalo leather in uses such as making belts for steam engines.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Swamp buffalo are best suited to tropical pastures and floodplain grasslands, however they have adapted to cooler regions of southern Australia. The riverine buffalo is better adapted to the southern regions with its ability to produce a heavier coat in winter; which has also seen riverine buffalo adapt to cool conditions in New Zealand.

There are livestock, meat and dairy production enterprises in most states of Australia, with live export production being the dominant enterprise in the Northern Territory and dairy in northern Queensland and southern Australia.

Climate

Although the water buffalo evolved in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, various types of the species are performing well in all climates of Australia. While the riverine buffalo appears better adapted to southern Australia, swamp buffalo also do well provided they have access to shelter (trees or housing) from winter cold and winds.

Housing

Buffalo will live in open paddocks, however some shade and shelter from summer heat and winter cold may be required, which can be provided by trees (shelterbelts) or simple shedding.

Feed requirements

In Australia, buffalo are mainly raised on pasture and depending on quality and quantity, supplementary feed products such as conserved fodder (hay or silage), grain (e.g. oats) or other concentrates (mineral salts) may also be required. However, buffalo are more efficient at converting grass to milk than cattle, and do not need the high levels of supplements required by dairy cattle, especially Friesians.

Good-quality, low-fat meat can be produced from buffalo on diets of poor quality and high roughage, compared with the quality of meat produced by cattle on the same diet. Buffalo are also well adapted to feedlot conditions, requiring less concentrated feed and tolerating higher roughage than cattle.

Breeds and breeding

There are three main types of domesticated buffalo within the species of Bubalus bubalis:

  • Swamp buffalo — introduced from South East Asia to Australia in the 1800s
  • Riverine buffalo — dairy type from India and Pakistan but introduced to Australia from stock sourced from the United States
  • Mediterranean buffalo (also riverine) — dual purpose animals native to the Mediterranean crescent from Egypt to Italy and directly imported from Italy and Bulgaria (crossed with Indian Murrah) by one Australian producer, and as imported dairy semen by many others.

The types of buffalo farmed in Australia are the swamp and riverine. Both overseas and in Australia, there has been selection of stock and cross-breeding between types to produce animals with desired meat or dairy production characteristics.

The swamp type buffalo are generally grey (light to dark), but in the natural population there can be significant numbers that are pink (common), and to a lesser extent albino and piebald animals.

The riverine type buffalo are usually much darker (black) but often have white markings on the head, legs or tail. The horns of riverine buffalo are quite differently shaped from those of swamp buffalo, with a lot more curl than the wide horns of swamp buffalo. The riverine type of buffalo appears to be better-adapted to the cooler climates of southern Australia than the swamp type, however the swamp type usually thrives if provided wind and cold protection in winter. Calving outside of winter is recommended for Swamp buffalo.

Herd build-up is a mixture of on-farm breeding and the hiring of bulls or artificial insemination to introduce desired genetics. Buffalo have a gestation period of 300–340 days (Swamp 330 days and Riverine 310 days) and usually give birth to one calf per pregnancy. In a farmed situation on good feed, buffalo can live up to 29 years and produce around 12-18 calves in their lifetime, until about age 20-24.

Sourcing stock

New buffalo enterprises are built on stock that is purchased directly from other farmers within Australia or imported stock from buffalo breeders overseas. The Australian Buffalo Industry Council website provides links to suppliers of livestock throughout Australia, as well as hosting a trading post.

Once a core herd is established, farmers build up their herds through breeding their own stock, using their own bulls, hired bulls and/or artificial insemination. Some dairy buffalo producers have imported their own livestock and/or semen, mainly from Italy, to build up and improve their herds.

Buffalo may also be purchased in the Northern Territory, from a facility operated by the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, which has been crossbreeding swamp and riverine types of buffalo for nearly 20 years to improve growth rates and fertility. The centre also provides advice on buffalos and their production to interstate buffalo producers.

Health care & pests and diseases

Provided that buffalo have access to good levels of feed and water, daily care routines are not onerous. However, like all livestock producers, a buffalo farmer must be constantly checking and aware of the health status of his herd.

Buffalo, particularly swamp buffalo, are well adapted to the tropical conditions of northern Australia and are susceptible to only a few pests and diseases. In northern Australia there was only one disease management program (for tuberculosis in the 80’s and 90’s) and Australia has been declared tuberculosis free.

Lice are a problem common in northern Australia, and to a lesser extent in southern Australia, causing anaemia and loss of condition. Most cattle lice formulations, apart from chlorpyrifos-based treatments, are effective as pour-ons or sprays for buffalo.

Buffalo are not a normal host to cattle ticks, except under exceptionally stressful conditions and when mixed with tick-infected cattle.

Worms, particularly ostertagiasis (brown stomach worm), can be a problem in Southern Australia, therefore a regular and strategic egg monitoring and drenching program is recommended. Treatment with “7 in 1” vaccine (clostridial plus leptospirosis) is recommended for all states, as well as locally-recommended treatments for cattle, such as vaccination for botulism and vibriosis (Campylobacter).

In southern Australia, buffalo are very susceptible to Malignant Catarrhal Fever (MCF) particularly when animals are heavily stressed, such as when they are in poor condition or arrive on a new property during a very cold period. At all times it is recommended that buffalo do not have direct contact with sheep, so as to avoid mortalities. This disease is a notifiable disease in most states of Australia, and producers should be aware of their responsibilities should an outbreak occur.

For further information on pests and disease of buffalo refer to the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries website.

Infrastructure Requirements

The infrastructure requirements for a buffalo enterprise are similar to those for beef or dairy cattle, and in many cases, buffalo farmers have repurposed existing infrastructure on cattle farms.

Conventional fencing is suitable for buffalo but increased visibility of the fence is recommended at mustering points. Electric fencing is highly recommended to control buffalo effectively, as the large horned animals can easily damage fences.

Buffalo require good shade and shelter from summer heat and winter cold, which can be provided by shelterbelts or shedding. Tree trunks may require some protection so the stock do not rub against the trunk or eat the bark.

Stock yards will be required for handling and sorting stock. There are many factors to be considered when designing or adapting stock yards – see Water Buffalo Handling: Property to Abattoir (Part 2. On farm considerations) for more information.

Grazing buffalo will require water troughs and 24 hour access to clean drinking water. Feeding troughs and a tractor and trailer or feed cart will be required if supplementary feeding is anticipated.

Buffalo do not necessarily need channels or dams for wallowing, however provision for cooling after mustering, e.g. overhead sprinklers in yards, is recommended.

A dairy buffalo enterprise will require an on-farm dairy, which entails holding yards, shedding, standard milking machines, and refrigerated storage and transport available. If the milk is processed into dairy products on-farm, food-grade preparation and storage facilities (State Health Department certified) will also be required.

Processing & Selling

Meat buffalo

To ensure an animal will provide high quality meat and a good eating experience, the Northern Territory Buffalo Industry Council and the Northern Territory Government (Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries) developed the TenderBuff® program, which specifies five criteria. It is imperative that the animal is less than 2½ years of age (no permanent teeth), it has 2-12mm of fat over the rump (P8 Site) and dressed weight is between 150–300kg. It also must be electrically stimulated at slaughter and muscle pH tested after 18 hours in the chiller. Pre-slaughter conditions should be such that there is no stress during handling and transport, or in the abattoir yards. To achieve all five criteria within specifications, the producer must produce young, well-grown buffalo that are quiet, tractable and can easily go through mustering, transport and abattoir processes. Handling of the animal significantly impacts on these criteria and ultimately, on the price paid to the producer.

For meat to be sold commercially, the buffalo must be slaughtered at an abattoir. The location of abattoirs makes it very difficult for most producers to slaughter animals, and costly in terms of packaging, transporting and storing meat for sale.

It is essential that a potential producer of buffalo meat researches the opportunities for slaughter, and fully understands the logistics and opportunities for packaging, transporting and storing meat prior to sale. Proximity to a cooperative abattoir is very important for achieving product quality and managing production costs.

Buffalo meat is sold to butchers and restaurants, or at farmers’ markets under the producer’s own label. The producer will have to establish and build relationships with buyers to ensure there is a market for their product.

For more information on the management of buffalo to achieve a good quality meat product refer to the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries publication Water Buffalo Handling: Property to Abattoir – Part 1.

Dairy buffalo

The milking of buffalo is very similar to milking dairy cows, with the facilities only needing to be modified to accommodate the large horns of the buffalo. Once or twice a day, the animals are herded to the dairy where each animal stands in a bale possibly with access to food, while it is milked using normal cow milking equipment.

According to the Victorian Buffalo Industry Council, the average milk yield of river buffalo ranges from 1,500 to 2,500 litres in about 270 days. It takes about five litres of buffalo milk to make one kilogram of cheese, compared with 10 litres of cow’s milk to make the same amount.

The milk is stored in a refrigerated vat until it is processed, on-farm or off farm, depending on the nature of the enterprise. The milk may be purchased by dairy food manufacturers, mostly cheese makers, who include buffalo milk cheeses in their range of products.

Markets & Marketing

Australia has less than 1% of the world’s buffalo population, with Thailand being the largest exporter of live animals, India being the largest exporter of buffalo meat and the main buffalo dairy product traded on a global scale is Mozzarella cheese from Italy to the US.

Live buffalo trade

Indonesia and Vietnam are the main importers of Australian stock, which is used mainly for feeding, slaughter and some breeding. Previously live animals have also been exported to Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines and many other destinations as far away as Cuba and Nigeria.

Buffalo meat

There is good consumer and food industry interest in buffalo meat, however the development of an industry is severely limited by a lack of abattoirs willing or able to slaughter buffalo. There are very few facilities prepared to slaughter and process buffalo for domestic sale.

Buffalo meat is sold domestically through farmers’ markets, for pie making or supplied to restaurants and specialty butchers. Success in this market segment relies upon the producer seeking out the required slaughtering and packaging services and building relationships with buyers/consumers. There are constant enquires for buffalo meat from Australia and overseas but it is difficult to compete overseas with India on both price and volume available.

Buffalo milk

The demand for buffalo milk is strong with many Australian dairy food producers keen to add buffalo milk and buffalo milk products to their product range. Some farmers have also had success establishing their own cheese making ventures.

In response to consumer demand, supermarkets are also looking to stock buffalo dairy product, but there is not sufficient industry production to fill large orders on a consistent basis.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

The greatest challenge for the buffalo meat industry is that there are few abattoirs willing or able to slaughter buffalo for domestic markets. There is domestic and export consumer demand but Australian buffalo meat producers are generally unable to supply potential orders. Dairy buffalo producers can be disadvantaged by the lack of meat processing facilities, as there is no market for their male calves.

Over and above standard national livestock registration requirements, the annual registration processes associated with farming buffalo (a declared pest species in some states) and the obtaining of permits to transport buffalo from interstate are considered onerous by producers in some states.

Regulatory considerations

The standard regulatory considerations that apply to all Australian farms, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safetyand transporting of livestock, apply to buffalo enterprises.

All states and territories, except the Northern Territory, have restrictions on the farming of buffalo and a permit or licence will be required prior to obtaining any animals. The conditions of the permit or licence can vary from state to state and can change at the issuing departments discretion which can cause frustration for farmers.

There are a range of considerations in relation to animal production including state animal welfare acts and regulations, on-farm animal welfare standards and guidelines, requirements in feedlots and for animal transportation. These regulations apply both domestically and for live export of animals. For specific information on the welfare regulations for the management of buffalo, refer to relevant local and state government authorities.

In several states of Australia, including New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland the buffalo is classified as a pest species and a permit is required from the state department of primary industry or a local authority to keep and breed buffalo.

As for all livestock, buffalo is to be registered with the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) if it is to be traded interstate or intrastate, or to be delivered to an abattoir for slaughter.

The Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code applies to the processing and packaging of buffalo meat and new producers should consult with their relevant state agency to ensure they fully understand their food safety responsibilities.

Publications

Publications/Information
The Australian Water Buffalo Manual RIRDC Publication (2017)

Characterisation of buffalo milk, cheese and yoghurt properties RIRDC Publication (2014)

Australian Water Buffalo – Genetic and reproduction improvements RIRDC Report (2008)

Maximising marketing opportunities for buffalo products RIRDC Report (2001)

Australian Buffalo Industry RIRDC report (2000)

Increasing buffalo production using reproduction technology RIRDC Report (2000)

Agnote J62 – Water Buffalo Farming in Southern Australia Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (2015)

Agnote J63 Water Buffalo Handling: Property to Abattoir (Part 1. General Principals) Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (2015)

Agnote J64 – Water Buffalo Handling: Property to Abattoir (Part 2. On farm considerations) Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (2015)

Agnote J65 – Water Buffalo Handling: Property to Abattoir (Part 3. Transportation to the Abattoir), Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (2015)

Agnote J69 – Breaking in Water Buffalo to Lead  Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (2015)

Code of Practice for Farmed Buffalo in Western Australia Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development

Industry Bodies

Australian Buffalo Industry Council (ABIC) is the national representative organisation for buffalo producers.

State and territory associations are affiliated members of the Council and links to each association are provided on the ABIC website.

Image Gallery

Buffalo in the Northern Territory

Making buffalo mozzarella

Riverine Buffalo