Missed opportunity for Australian buffalo

Niche market begs for buffalo

John Lloyd, Yarrabee via Kempsey with his beloved buffalo.

John Lloyd, Yarrabee via Kempsey with his beloved buffalo.

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A strong niche market for buffalo products - particularly dairy - has galvanised a small but dedicated group of breeders.

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Australia’s relationship with its feral population of Asian ‘swamp’ buffalo is a ‘comedy of errors’ that has resulted in a lost opportunity, according to self-educated buffalo whisperer John Lloyd, of Yarrabee Station, Cooperabung.

John and his wife Carmel call the mid North Coast home these days but they learned how to handle the wary breed in the wilds of Arnhem Land.

For 20 years they captured feral ‘swamps’ with horns the size of dinner tables and tamed them in yards. “We both moved faster back then,” said Mr Lloyd.” Carmel would be up the rail like wind if necessary.”

But it wasn’t long before John could stroll amongst them. In fact it took surprisingly little time - on account of the animals’ smarts.

Handling buffalo is not hard and shouldn’t be violent, with the animals smart enough to know when they’re being treated right. Mr Lloyd says patience is the key.

“Let them look and see first,” he says. “They’ll take their time and feel their way. They’re so aware of what’s happening that they can be uptight. When they’re unloaded they’re on their toes.” As a result John stays with his steers at the Fredericton abattoir until they’re time comes.

In the early days the Lloyd’s end market were the willing Germans who were so eager to include lean buffalo beef in their range of small goods.  But a brucellosis scare resulted in a great cull between 1980-1996 with Mr Lloyd estimating 460,000 shot from the back of a truck or helicopter. “But the whole program never worked,” he lamented. “Where the Aborigines in Arnhem Land used to a get a levy for every buffalo caught now they only get sit-down money. The whole set-up was just too big to do right considering the size of the Top End. The way we have treated the buffalo is a comedy of errors.”

Today number have returned, with more than 150,000 in the wild, but the German market has never returned. “We proved to them we couldn’t supply a consistent product,” said Mr Lloyd.

These days the domestic market for lean buffalo meat rests with the migrant community - after all most of the world has come to rely on the animal.

“I’d encourage people to get into this niche market,” Mr Lloyd said. “There are so many foreign people in this country - Indian looking for buffalo meat as a traditional food.”

“They muscle up early so we kill early to avoid them being tough,” said Mr Lloyd. “Now we produce meat that is spot-on.”

These days the growth in buffalo demand is through dairy, with the tastiest cheeses and gelatos commanding price and pride.

Margaret Thompson, Maleny, Queensland, has roots in Australian dairying that go back to to the Kangaroo Valley via Alstonville before pioneering the fertile Blackall Range west of the Sunshine Coast. She has never been paid so much for milk: $3/l and at the moment she can survive being a small dairy. After all the end product can sell for upward of $60/kg and regularly markets for half that.

“But you have to watch your components,” she said, noting her cows produced 7l/day which is twice as much as buffalo herds on poorer east coast country. Too much volume and you lose the concentrated fats and vitamins. “It just becomes like regular milk - and you can’t make a living doing that.”

Maturing palate a dairy opportunity

Ian and Kim Massingham created a new tree-change venture by adopting the Mediterranean Riverine milking buffalo and its component-rich milk.

Ian and Kim Massingham created a new tree-change venture by adopting the Mediterranean Riverine milking buffalo and its component-rich milk.

When Ian and Kim Massingham escaped Sydney for a tree-change nearly five years ago they came to Eungai Creek at Tamban, on the Nambucca, with a plan.

Having fallen in love with the milking buffalo three years earlier, they decided to create a 90 head dairy herd of primarily Mediterranean Riverine crossed with Asian Swamp. Bulls came from the Thompson family dairy at Maleny Queensland.

The Massingham’s Tamban farm wraps around the creek on the best soil around, which isn’t saying much as it quickly rises to sandy clay supporting mostly Eucalypts. So much forestry gives shelter to wild dogs but the buffalo, like the Arctic yak, work co-operatively to defend their calves, with cows forming a circle around their young with horns facing outwards. Nothing gets through this defence. In fact cattle dogs don’t have a hope of controlling these creatures, as buffalo won’t kick and instead turn to face their opponent with their impressive rack of horns. So the best herding is quietly, on foot. “We move in buffalo time,” says Kim.

The Massinghams were fortunate in buying their 120ha property from Polish biodynamic farmer Stan Barwinski, a pioneer of organic farming in Australia, who improved the place to the point where more earthworms were recorded on that property by the Charles Sturt University than anywhere on the East Coast!

However the Kikuyu pastures are not improved. Inputs are low and the buffalo don’t complain. They are resilient survivors that thrive on the North Coast.

Production is meager compared to a commercial Frisian. The Massinghams’ herd currently delivers just two litres per cow twice a day, but the components they offer are remarkable: eight percent fat, 58 per cent more calcium that cow’s milk with total conversion of carotene to vitamins and 43 per cent lower cholesterol. No wonder buffalo milk supplies 29 per cent of the world’s dairy needs with India and Pakistan leading the charge. 

Brazil  produces two million litres every day and has been busy importing the best dairy embryos from Italy - which got its first buffalo from India in the seventh century. Seems Australia might be lagging behind in its interest in spite of the fact that they were introduced to the Top End from 1829. Flood dispersed a few early ones and the breed - Asian swamp rather than the Mediterranean Riverine, has been regarded a feral pest for 127 years.

To make the most of their venture Kim took courses that gave her status as master cheesemaker and produced traditional Mozzerala, Halloumi, Persian feta, gelato, yoghurt and more.

Swamp and Riverine buffalo on low country at Yarrabee.

Swamp and Riverine buffalo on low country at Yarrabee.

Beef from steers grown out to 200kg carcase weight after 18 months is killed at Frederickton via Kempsey and cut and packed by a butcher at nearby Gladstone.

Promotion initially focused on 18 monthly markets and half a dozen speciality food events between Bellingen and Laurieton. Now the Massingham’s children work the markets while Kim and Ian run an on-farm cafe which attracts traffic down a 4.5km dirt track from the highway. On Australia day 45 customers booked for lunch with a menu that included mozzarella, of course, beef dishes like Osso Buffo from their own steers and gelato to die for. Most Sundays are just as busy.

“People want this,” says Kim. People are craving different things.”

Ian runs the farm as Mr Barwinski intended - fully biodynamic. 10-25 cows are milked every day from a two-stand portable vacuum machine that came with the farm. Calves are left on their mothers for a month which keeps the system simple.

“I like that it’s simple,” says Kim. “We do things in buffalo time.”

Resource going begging

Australia was gifted this natural resource after an experimental herd at Port Essington was dispersed by flood. The breed now thrives in the northern wetlands.

“Buffalo live where cattle die,” says Yarrabee’s John Lloyd who marvels at the intelligence of the shy animal.

However Australia has treated the swamp feral as a pest instead of a resource.

With 29 per cent of the world’s dairy production reliant on buffalo milk and beef providing protein to billions, no wonder countries like Brazil are working hard to improve their genetics – taking semen and embryos out of properly quarantined animals in Italy to produce two million litres of buffalo milk each day just to meet domestic demand. Australia’s production is a drop in the bucket by comparison.

“We need to talk to these people,” said Mr Lloyd. In Brazil you can get a uni degree in buffalo husbandry. Here we have no idea.”

“Buffalo meat is very lean with less cholesterol than beef so the Germans used it to incorporate into their small goods,” Mr Lloyd said.

Steers are killed at Frederickton, via Kempsey, through Eversons Food Processors at 15-18 month with a carcase weight of 160-180kg. “The meat is very tender at that age,” he says. “The animal has never been stressed.

Product is sold through agents to restaurants in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

But the Lloyds say the modern market is for Buffalo heifers as future milkers to a growing number of niche buffalo dairies.

Pioneer buffalo milker Margaret Thompson, Maleny, Queensland, said she has never been paid so much for milk: $3/l sold direct to niche operator Maleny Cheese whose master maker Trevor Hart has a cult following on the Sunshine Coast.

Steers are processed at Highchester, Beaudesert and there is hope the meat will soon be marketed in local IGA stores. And at the moment she can survive being a small dairy. After all the end product can sell for upward of $60/kg and regularly markets for half that.

“But you have to watch your components,” she said. “Too much volume and you lose the concentrated fats and vitamins. “It just becomes like regular milk - and you can’t make a living doing that.”

When it comes to genetics Mrs Thompson - whose lineage through her maiden name Cooke took part in pioneering the dairy industry on Blackall Range as well as the Alstonville Plateau - says the fabled Bulgarian Murrah really produces no more than here well fed Italian Riverine cows at Maleny - the semen of which originally came from the US.

Buffalo are tough animals that can thrive when cattle are just trying to survive. They will lay down fat in good times to offset the dry. But, like any living creature, good nutrition produces good product.

Maintaining consistency of supply is a bit tricky when extremes of weather dictate pasture quality.

“If you lose them near the end of their lactation you won’t get them back,” says Mrs Thompson noting under stressful conditions they will fail to get back in calf.

“In Thailand they complain about less milk but they only fed them the cob of the corn and in Cambodia they only feed them rice straw which is full of silica. You need to feed them good food if you want something good out of them.”

For the moment Mrs Thompson is content to supply a high-end niche market. “Being boutique is good for the money,” she says. “And consumers only need a little. They don’t need to gorge but they want something really good.”

And when it comes to working with these animals Mrs Thompson said patience was the key to happy cows.

“Treated right they are the most gentle cows out,” said the Octogenarian who started milking buffalo after deregulation in 2005. At the time there were only two other buffalo milking dairies in Australia: At Shaw River, Victoria, run by Australian Buffalo Industry Council president Mitch Humphries, and Millaa Millaa on the Atherton Tableland.

Today there’s a dozen dairies across the Eastern Seaboard from with two in Victoria, another on the South Coast, and the Mid North Coast, and a new one starting in the Byron Hinterland.

“You either like buffalo or you don’t. They judge you. And when you get to like them, well, you just like them. Ours even have a rapport with our grandchildren.

The buffalo whisperer of Yarrabee via Kempsey, John Lloyd, is a dab hand at bush poetry!

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