In 1985 we bought 54 acres near Tampa where the previous owner raised chickens and cattle. Before making this move my wife and I owned a small landscape nursery business and our plan was to raise ornamental trees on the new property starting with a bucket of palm seed we brought with us. At the time we knew nothing about raising cattle, but needed to get and keep our green belt tax exemption. So I found five cheap cows in the classifieds that the seller would deliver. We always owned dogs and cats and soon started a similar relationship with this new sort of pets. After a couple of years we needed to start planting the seed that turned into trees and needed a little extra money, so we sold the small herd that had doubled in size and had increased in weight exponentially. Now this was a first, having animals that produced income, and we also enjoyed it. At this point in my life I’d always had dirt on my hands and raising trees for cash was very profitable, but for some reason growing food sounded even better.
In 1989 we started growing vegetables with my brother, who at that time was our county’s vegetable crop agent. This ended after eight years, for a lot of reasons, but mainly money. We still had trees growing and we started using the money from their sales, this time growing organic vegetables. About 2007 I ran across a video produced by The Arthur Morgan Institute called ‘Community Solutions’, about Cuban’s oil supply crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two things struck me about this documentary; first, that farming in Cuba became one of the highest paid professions on the island, and second was their transition to using oxen and water buffalo in their sustainable farming practices–mainly because of having no fuel for their tractors. Wow, at last a good reason to get back into animal husbandry; but what was a water buffalo?
At that time a few ‘buffs’ were in Florida, brought here to try to rid the state of pest plants, plus there were a few on hunting preserves. For the next couple of years I kept thinking about getting out of the tree business and felt the best use of our land was grazing animals. True, what we want to do is a lot different than what we can do or have the knowledge to do. As Joel Salatin says, “do what you’re good at”. I haven’t figured that one out, but I knew nothing about Water Buffalo.
One day after vending our vegetables at a local market, one of the farm team mentioned that a person named Antonio was inquiring about our farm and the possibility of leasing land to raise water buffalo for milk and to make cheese. Now milking water buffalo never crossed my mind, but at the time I was really becoming a fan of raw milk. So within a couple of days I saw firsthand a water buffalo and also came to understand that Antonio wasn’t on the same page as we were. We learned a lot from his mistakes, but after a couple of years parted ways. Antonio took his herd of buffs except for three calves that we kept.
By then I’d spent numerous hours every day with them. At first they were wild feral animals; scared, crazy, some from hunting preserves; dangerous, unpredictable, large, powerful and beautiful beasts with deadly horns. I soon understood that over tens of thousands of years of living with humans these animals had great respect for us and knew what was expected of them. Evenings I could scratch their ears and these half ton animals would collapse on the ground as if hypnotized. Eros, the bull, would lower his head so I could use it as a step to get on his back. Scratch one behind the ears and all would crowd in to get their attention treat. No, this didn’t happen overnight, but I had read numerous accounts of feral water buffalo around the world brought out of the wild to become working partners with humans within as little as a couple of weeks.
After Antonio’s departure we did buy a couple Jersey cow crosses and were impressed by their smooth coats compared to the rhino-like, sparsely-haired water buffalo hides. I also knew that if milk was what we’re after the Jerseys would triple the Buffs’ production. Our’s were the River type water buffalo that produces more milk than the Swamp type, but still not nearly what the Italian dairy breeds are capable of. At the time we were buying raw milk from a dairy a couple of hundred miles away and felt the need to go for volume over quality of milk. Water Buffalo milk has one of the highest fat contents of any mammal, plus other healthy properties. The fat is why mozzarella is made from their milk and dairy breed buffaloes do produce in volume close to a jersey cow. Then we realized that a neighbor had just started a local raw milk dairy using Jerseys. Also, we relied on WWOOFers and other volunteer help and most disappeared in the Florida summer heat leaving my wife to run our weekend markets by herself. Lugging ten or more gallons of milk plus other dairy products by herself would be very hard. So we sold the Jersey and bought two more of the Buffalypso River type WB that we could buy locally. Wilma and Iceburg both had their calves within a month. Iceburg refused to be trained so we started with Wilma, which was difficult at times, but we got our milk. She produced about two gallons at the start, and this was all from grazing unimproved pastures and a few watermelons. We just milked mornings and allowed her calf to be with her during the rest of the daytime.
Presently we have a total of fifteen water buffalo and have butchered three over the last two years. These were sold as ‘grassfed’ to a local food co-op for three to four dollars per pound hanging weight. We sell the milk for $9 per half gallon and the butter for $1 per ounce, plus we sell a little cheese and whey. Still, for three months we keep the calf with the mother, and only average about a gallon a day per animal. No, not a lot of money. A good goat produces more milk than our cows, but this is special stuff, just ask our grandchildren. Also, I have not been to the dentist since I started drinking the buffalo milk. Hey, really special stuff!
On the downside, water buffalo are herd animals and can’t stand to be alone. They need human attention or they tend to get wild and fight between themselves, pretty brutally, and like other large animals they need to do something. You just can’t pick one up! They know when any strangers are on the farm and if you have left a gate open they will find it! We do have a one-horse sugarcane mill and would like to train a team to power it, and we have a couple of old light pasture choppers that I’m sure they could handle. True, we need a little more help training them. One of the best parts of having water buffalo is that they supply about all the fertilizer for the vegetable farm; plus we collect the waste-water from our dairy and use it in our small orchard, like compost tea.
My interest in water buffalo started because of the issue of sustainable farming. We hear a lot about the negative effects of modern meat production on our environment and agree, but I do feel that small herds of grass-fed, multi-use animals aren’t a problem. These animals are part of nature and one of the answers to the enormous environmental issues facing us. All they need is water, air, earth and sunlight to produce, milk, meat, fertilizer and power. All this from grasses and other forage we can’t digest. It’s the opposite of Einstein’s Theory of Energy; taking the dispersed energy of sunlight, water and earth and concentrating it into milk, butter, fat, meat and manure: A walking sustainable factory.
Not sure what’s next, but like most small farms we struggle to keep up. My wife and I are both in our sixties and slowly keep getting behind. Luckily we started with a profitable product, so all is paid for and we’ve installed solar power here at the farm. We’ve become professional dumpster divers, reducing, reusing, composting, and recycling what we can. It’s a shame to think our skills, knowledge, and sustainable farming practices, like so many other small farmers, may soon be gone. If you want to know more about our vanishing farmers check out “Field of Farmers” by Joel Salatin.
Our two grandchildren presently live with us. Hayley is five and spends most evenings helping close gates and pen-up the calves; Eight year old CJ is still involved with them, too, and has named all the new calves for the last couple of years. . Maybe their best farm fun is pitch-forking cow patties to the compost pile. Both love the milk and buffalo burgers, and know there will always be more precious calves to love.