Ranchers will try anything. So when Joe Marchbanks laid his eyes on some Arkansas water buffalo, you knew he was going to start his own herd.
We piled into the truck at 6 o’clock in the morning. Sleepy but excited, we looked forward to a day of adventure.
Bob Young, farm manager and Ag instructor for the Kilgore (Texas) College Farm, and Joe Marchbanks, a retired oilfield engineer, sat in front. I sat in the back with my husband, Scott Snowden, the assistant manager of the Kilgore College Farm. I made sure I cracked a window for a little fresh air. I didn’t care how chilly it was outside because when you travel with men, it’s important to always have access to fresh air. You never know when you are going to need it.
We were headed for Turkey Creek Ranch, a 650 acre ranch snuggled comfortably in the hills of Arkansas just outside of Texarkana. It was a nice day for a road trip and we all settled in for the drive to Arkansas. The men talked about the farm. I spent most of my time on my BlackBerry sending text messages and emails, much to the greater consternation of my husband.
Arriving at our destination we turned through its wide gate and drove down a windy road. The anticipation starting to build. We peered through the trees as we drove by looking for any sign of what we had come to see:
Turkey Creek Ranch is not a game ranch or a zoo. It is a working cattle ranch with about a hundred Asian water buffalo.
It was the first water buffalo dairy in North America and helped the water buffalo industry gain a foothold on this continent. We had to come to look at the operation, and possibly purchase a small group of animals for the farm. Mr. Marchbanks was thinking about adding a few water buffalo to his ranch, and, frankly, I figured any animal with a name like Bubalus bubalis had to be worth seeing.
Water Buffalo Lines
Arriving at the barn, we were met by Tom and Shannon Olson, the ranch proprietors. They’ve been in the water buffalo business since the 1980s.
Tom has always been a rancher, primarily in Angus, but in the eighties he found himself hankering for something different.
He had looked into llamas, emus and ostriches and then, quite by accident, bumped into water buffalo. Almost immediately enamored with the animals, he proceeded to set up a dairy, sold stock and some cheese and milk products, and meat. These days he sells breeding stock, primarily to the few water buffalo dairies found across the nation.
He explained to us that the first water buffalo for commercial use in this country were imported mostly from Trinidad and Guam, and some were purchased from zoos. In addition to the Trinidad and Guam lines, there is also a foundation line out India, the Murrah, but these days stock imported from Italy have really gained in popularity. Each line has its own particular characteristics, but most water buffalo in this country probably have elements of all these lines somewhere in their DNA.
Tom largely keeps crossbreeds between the two major types of water buffalo, the river and the swamp buffalo.
He described the swamp buffalo as short and round, being “not as tall as the river buffalo, but twice as wide.” The swamp buffalo tend to be a little slower going, lighter in color than their river brethren, and typically marked by a chevron on their chests.
He compared the swamp buffalo to the “old time Angus,” whereas the river buffalo he said are more of a “Holstein like animal.”
By looking at the buffalo you can pretty much size up what line they come out of. If they have blues eyes, that’s a river trait. If they are somewhat blonde in appearance, they are out of the Trinidad and Guam lines. If they are small, comparatively speaking, that’s a Murrah trait.
Smart and Wary
Water buffalo have a reputation for being smart. According to Tom, “They know who doesn’t belong and don’t particularly like strangers.”
They are also creatures of habit and don’t like having their routines interrupted. WBs find it disconcerting when something changes in their pasture. As far as disposition goes, their reputation is somewhat split. They are known for being large, gentle animals, but require handling to get them that way: they don’t necessarily come that way straight out of the box.
We watched Tom’s ranch hand work the buffalo and noticed that he moved very slowly, talked to them continuously in low soothing tones, and never raised his hands above his waist. You have to take your time with water buffalo and don’t want to panic or upset them. Unlike many of our domestic breeds of cattle, water buffalo come with a working set of horns and can move surprisingly fast.
Perhaps the best demonstration of this somewhat split personality comes out of Indonesia. A few months ago the president of Indonesia was compared to a water buffalo. Apparently people didn’t much like what he was doing or not doing, and protests were held where many brought their water buffalo (the symbol of the opposition party in Indonesia) to drive their point home.
The president took exception to being compared to a water buffalo, implying that he was slow and plodding. He proceeded to outlaw the presence of the animals at protests, arguing that water buffalo could be dangerous and a threat to public safety.
What political statement he might have been trying to make at this point to his detractors is beyond me. Perhaps he was implying that he, too, could be somewhat unpredictable and therefore should be handled with care.
Don’t Forget the Wallow
As both Bob and Mr. Marchbanks were considering purchasing animals, we wanted to know about their care and feeding. Water buffalo have the same requirements as cattle as far as vaccinations go and eat the same food.
We had heard that they were less likely to attract horn flies, those nasty little devils that plague cattle starting in the spring. Tom explained that he hadn’t noticed that his animals were more resistant to flies, but maybe they had fewer of them because of their tendency to wallow.
Oh, yes, they wallow. Now many of us who have cattle are familiar with bull wallows, large shallow circular depressions where the bulls like to dig and roll around. Imagine that same wallow, but two to three times bigger. That’s a water buffalo wallow. Tom explained that water buffalo, true to their name, like being in the water and will “sniff out water” and dig down until they find it to make a wallow.
In addition to learning to accommodate wallows in your pasture, if you decide to have water buffalo, you need to be ready to make a lifetime commitment. Water buffalo live 20 to 30 years (if treated well).
At the age of two or two and half they can be bred, but they are fully developed at five or six. Most are bred at two, calving at three. They have a gestation period of about ten and a half months. Both cows and bulls can breed into their twenties. Water buffalo, unlike some of the larger breeds of cattle, rarely have calving problems. They are also less likely to develop foot problems, and predation is negligible. Coyotes have the sense to leave these animals alone.
What Tom was describing was an easy keeper. This sounded real good to us, but to have a water buffalo with a long and productive life, he explained that you have to be willing to invest in them (from an infrastructure point of view).
They Don’t Like Cold
First, while it is understood that water buffalo need access to water and shade all year around, they don’t like cold, wet weather and need a shelter to get into when things turn bad. Temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees are “the worst” for water buffalo, especially when accompanied by cold winds or rains. “Cold weather is hard on them,” he told us, and they need to have adequate protection from it.
Second, you need adequate space to work them. Holding pens need to be a bit bigger than the standard pens for cattle, and you must make some modifications in your head gates and chutes to get such a large horned animal through them. Water buffalo average about 1600 pounds although the Murrah are smaller, in the 1200-1400 pound range.
Now let’s say you run off and buy yourself a couple of water buffalo, hoping to make a sound investment. What are you going to do with them?
If you want to feed the world you will invest in two types of animals, goats and water buffalo. These two animals feed more people worldwide than any others on the face of the Earth. However, that is true primarily for the “Old World,” and not the Americas.
If you move into the water buffalo market you will be in a niche market for stock, cheese, meat and milk. It’s true the finest cheeses in Italy are made from water buffalo milk and the meat is leaner than most meat from cattle. However, you will not find water buffalo products at your typical grocery. Look for them in specialty shops, high-end restaurants, and on the Internet.
The products are expensive, with some kinds of cheese going for $28.00 to $30.00 a pound, so don’t expect them to be really big sellers.
If you decide to breed water buffalo for dairies, you should know that there aren’t many in the USA, but they are expanding in Canada and England. So to increase your chances of making it you will have to be involved in some form of international trade. It’s not like you are going to make a killing at the local sale barn selling calves or breeding stock.
These animals are a long term investment, and in order to be successful you are going to have to be aggressive in your marketing and innovative to ride out the highs and lows of the market.
Riding Your Water Buffalo
Tom told us that while he sells water buffalo to dairies, he also sells to private individuals who want a little something unusual for their ranches or hobby farms. He spoke of one family who bought a water buffalo “for the grandkids to ride.”
One of the many uses for water buffalo in Asia is transportation, but it’s not like people are riding them all over town. Tom explained that once a water buffalo becomes accustomed to a pattern, such as going from one place to another on a daily basis, you can hitch a ride, but it’s not like you are riding the water buffalo – you are just a passenger while the water buffalo makes his way home or out to the field.
Besides the sale of stock to dairies, Tom also mentioned the darker side of the business – disposing of older or excess animals. What do you do when you have too many animals or they have reached the end of their breeding lives?
You probably aren’t going to take them to the local sale barn. The other outlet for water buffalo is game ranches. I said ranches, not preserves. Sadly some animals are sold to game ranches for the purpose of being hunted. Tom was very uncomfortable with this idea but admitted that when you are in business and have to make a profit, sometimes this is really the only outlet for the sale of some animals, but no one does it gladly; it is seen as a last resort.
A Decision is Made
We made the trip to Turkey Creek Ranch to see the animals, talk to Tom, and possibly make arrangements to purchase a few for the farm for educational purposes. The prices on water buffalo are about on par with pure-bred cattle prices, maybe a little more, but not by much.
Pregnant heifers go for upwards of $3,000 and two year old heifers go for as much as $2,000. You can pick up a weanling for about $750, as well as an older cow for that same price. Bulls are sold for about $1.50 per pound. (Please bear in mind that all prices are subject to change without notice.)
While Bob was mulling over a decision, Mr. Marchbanks decided to step up and show him how it’s done.
Mr. Marchbanks has a ranch right down the road from the college farm and he is a great supporter of agriculture. He is also something of an innovator.
Seeing the potential in these animals, and wanting a little something unusual, he decided to make a purchase.
In the end he decided on three young heifers and a bull to add to his ranch. Although a little unsure at first they are now quite comfortable at their new home. Mr. Marchbanks is enjoying spending time with his new acquisitions, and they are calming rapidly. Today he told me with a big smile that they are coming up to the fence when he feeds them and seem to enjoy his company now that they have gotten to know him a little bit.
The Meaning of Water Buffalo — Innovation
Mr. Marchbanks is in his early eighties. I tell you this because I believe it is both a testament to these animals and to Mr. Marchbanks that they are gentling quickly. He works with them, feeds them, and most importantly treats them with a kind hand. They really couldn’t have found a better home.
No doubt the first water buffalo in Rusk County, Texas, will become a little spoiled, but in the meantime they are going to teach us all a lesson in international agriculture and trade. They will also help broaden the education of young people as Mr. Marchbanks has volunteered his water buffalo for public exhibit here at the farm to help get the word out.
While Bob hasn’t quite come to a decision yet as to what the farm is going to do, there is a growing interest in water buffalo here. Buffalo ownership takes commitment and hard work, but most of all an innovative spirit, of which there is no short supply in rural areas.
Raising water buffalo may not be for everyone, but with time and a little luck, perhaps, these versatile animals will earn a greater place in American agriculture. For now they make our pastures a bit more interesting, encouraging people to stop and visit, wanting to learn more.
That in itself has made the journey worth it.