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
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.