Ontario, where the (water) buffalo roam

by Alina Smirnova

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Curious, friendly and strong, the water buffalos are native to Asia – but some have recently found a place to roam in Stirling, Ontario.

Martin Littkemann and Lori Smith are the dairy farmers who set up the first water buffalo milking farm in Eastern Canada, a move that won the couple the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence last year.

The award entails cash prizes and a chance to come to the Royal Winter Fair to educate others, which is why they were Thursday, standing side by side, smiling – Littkemann, from behind his round spectacles, and Smith from behind her rectangular ones.

Their adoration of the water buffalo is obvious.

“They are tough animals – they can survive in tropics; they can chase off tigers and lions,” Littkemann said proudly.

Although Smith and Littkemann were both dairy farmers before, water buffalo farming was new to them. After trips to Italy to study the industry,  Smith said that she felt both excited and nervous to start this project.

“But if you aren’t, then you wonder if it’s worth doing,” she explained. “It’s like when people say something’s too hard to do, well if it’s easy, than everyone could do it.”  (Listen to Smith’s interview here.)

They ended up importing 40 buffalo from Vermont and 10 from British Colombia and began their milking operation, dealing closely with Quality Cheese. The end product is buffalo mozzarella, which Littkemann described as a “white tablecloth cheese.” It is spongy, moist and when it is cut into, fat oozes out. It is often used in the Italian caprese salad. The cheese is also low in lactose, making it an alternative to milk and soy-based products for people who are lactose intolerant.

Littkemann pointed out that internationally, water buffalo farming is big. There are almost 170 million animals worldwide, with 90 per cent of them living in Asia. India’s population of the animal is 110 million.

“One water buffalo for every 11 occupants,” Littkemann explained. He also pointed out that in Asia, water buffalo are important culturally.

“Your family wealth depends on how many buffalo you own,” he said.

And although only a quarter of a percent live in Italy, that country’s water buffalo milking operation is bigger than Ontario’s dairy operation.

As their name suggests, the water buffalo love water – from drinking it to swimming and playing in it. Smith said that they often stick their heads in the water troughs and splash around. They also adore the mud and dug themselves a pond to bask in.

“Every one of them has a lot of personality,” Smith explained. “I know the cattle did. But these ones show it. They shine.”

She also said that their disposition is different from a cow’s.

“We have some, that when you bring them from the barn and you’re standing right in front, some will stop and they won’t go until you pet them,” said Smith, beaming.

Smith explained that in Italy, the water buffalo are not dehorned; unlike the ones who weigh 2,000 pounds and live at their Ontario farm.

“They do enough damage without the horns. They are very destructive; they don’t know their own strength,” she laughed. “We had buildings that have been there for generations that are now being torn apart by these animals because they’re always rubbing against them.”

Smith and Littkemann are hoping to expand their dairy farm.  But they are not looking to push cow’s milk aside.

“It can stand next to the cow’s milk on the shelf if it likes,” Smith said. “The only thing we’re hoping to displace is the imports because of the carbon footprint [they leave].”