The Evolving Face of Farming
Water buffalo are now part of the Comox Valley agricultural scene, thanks to McClintock’s Farm.
In 2010, Sandra McClintock had decided it was time to make some serious decisions about her future. A fourth generation Comox Valley farmer, she was no stranger to the agricultural industry but she thought, perhaps, it might be interesting to develop a business that produced value-added products. It was time for a change, and for her to personally invest her energy into the 78-acre family-owned and operated heritage farm in Dove Creek. This would give her the opportunity to live and work alongside her father, Gerry, and mother, Val at McClintock’s Farm.
She was seriously considering life as a cheese or yogurt maker when, out of the blue, her business coach and advisor, Gary Rolston, suggested a water buffalo dairy.
“I literally laughed out loud when Gary said that!” recalls McClintock with a grin. “I had lots of experience working with dairy cattle in New Zealand, and being the herd manager on a couple of local dairies. But our family farm had always been focused on growing crops and raising beef cattle, not dairy cows… and definitely not Asian water buffalo!”
Over the next few days, McClintock pondered her options. Should she start a business where her focus would require lots of mathematical calculations and the challenges of food preparation and packaging equipment? Or should she continue to work with animals, as she had done for most of her life? (She has a degree in Animal Sciences from the University of Alberta.)
It wasn’t long before she decided that, instead of learning how to make cheese, she would take the advice of her business coach and start a water buffalo dairy that produced the milk so someone else could make specialty cheese!
As McClintock affectionately reaches out to scratch the forehead of a rambunctious little water buffalo heifer named Annie—one of the first 15 calves born on the farm since last spring, all with names that start with the letter ‘A’—it is easy to see she has made the right decision. With their flat black noses, floppy ears, gentle brown eyes and amiable dispositions, the water buffalo babies are easy to grow fond of.
McClintock’s first step was to secure a buyer for the milk that would be produced. All of it is sold to Natural Pastures Cheese in Courtenay. Then, after some number crunching and careful cost analysis, she installed a milking parlor that can accommodate eight cows at a time, making a few adaptations to retrofit it for water buffalo. Then, in the fall of 2010, she took delivery of 15 water buffalo heifers from Fairburn Farm in Duncan, BC, and a bull from the Ontario Water Buffalo Company in Stirling, Ontario.
After the first calves were born, she started milking the buffalo on March 8, 2012, which was only about a month after her daughter Carla was born. McClintock says, rather nonchalantly, that she has not missed a milking or had a single day off since then. Surprisingly, instead of looking exhausted, like one would expect of a new mom and dairymaid to this unique herd, McClintock appears elated. Clearly, this woman is no stranger to hard work and she loves her life on the farm.
Today, there are only two beef cattle left on McClintock’s farm and the water buffalo herd—which grazes free range on the farm’s lush pastures—has grown to more than 30.
This includes the female calves that were born on the farm, as well as 11 pregnant heifers that are being leased from another farmer. Twenty-six more calves are expected in the coming months.
As planned, this new business enterprise remains a family affair, along with the large and well-established ‘U-pick’ blueberry and raspberry fields and award-winning sweet corn that McClintock’s Farm is known for. The biggest corncobs are sold at the weekly Farmers Market in the fall and the smaller cobs are chopped into silage and fed to the livestock over the winter months.
Sandra McClintock is responsible for animal health, milking and breeding. Her father, Gerry, ensures that all of the equipment is in good working order and maintains his role as the crop specialist, ensuring that the berries, corn, and other crops are growing well. Her mother, Val, looks after customer relations, yard maintenance and the day-to-day running of the farm. Fourteen-month-old baby Carla is busy growing up.
According to McClintock, there are unique challenges to managing water buffalo, as compared to a traditional dairy herd. While the animals are quiet, easy-going and predictable, they do best with routine and they dislike change. As a result, it can be harder to get them to ‘let their milk down’, especially if someone else comes into the milking parlor. Overall, they are hardier than dairy cows and require little help from their caretakers when it comes time for the babies to be born. They are also longer-lived, and can continue to produce milk well into their 20s.
Despite their rarity in North America, water buffalo have been domesticated for thousands of years in Asia and Europe. They have been traditionally used as draft animals and raised for both their milk and meat. While there are some wild water buffalo in various parts of the world, they are a different species.
The first water buffalo were brought to North America in 1976. According to the American Water Buffalo Association, there are only about 4,000 water buffalo in the USA. Surprisingly, a large percentage of Canada’s small water buffalo population is on Vancouver Island. McClintock’s Farm is one of only three domesticated Asian water buffalo dairies in BC. One in Duncan started in 2006, and another one in Port Alberni started just recently. Island Bison Farm in Black Creek is working in cooperation with two of the dairies to buy their bull calves and now has 23 water buffalo, in addition to dozens of American bison, which are being raised for meat.
Water buffalo are to Asia what bison were to the American plains Indians. For millennia, water buffalo provided draft power, milk, meat, hides, horn and fuel in parts of Asia where no other sources existed. They are still an integral part of rural life in Vietnam, Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia. They are intelligent animals with a placid nature and they thrive with human interaction.
Often referred to as the ‘living tractors’ of Southeast Asia, water buffalo have massive frames supported by stocky short legs and large cloven hooves that are perfect for navigating flooded rice paddies. Their rotund and well-muscled bodies are a sharp contrast to the angular and boney structure of the modern-day dairy cow.
There are two main types of water buffalo—river and swamp. Despite having slightly different chromosomes, the two distinct types can be interbred with each other but cannot be successfully bred to domesticated cattle, American bison, Cape buffalo or yaks. Many of North America’s water buffalo are a combination of the two types. Fully-grown adults can range from 800 to 2,000 pounds and measure 40 to 60 inches tall (at the withers). Both males (bulls) and females (cows) have long, slightly curled horns and black tongues. As their name suggests, they love to swim in water and wallow in mud.
Water buffalo calves have very thick, shaggy hair when young, while the adults have relatively sleek coats that range in color from black to light brown or gray. This variance in coat thickness is related to the fact that water buffalo have one-tenth the number of sweat glands of domesticated cattle and correspondingly sparse coats. They are born with all of the hair follicles they will ever have so, once the hair falls out, it doesn’t grow back.
Doug Smith from Natural Pastures Cheese says that water buffalo milk is prized for its flavor and texture and that it is much different than cows’ milk. It is higher in fat, protein, calcium and minerals and is an all around very, very rich milk… making it ideal for processing into fine cheese. Natural Pastures produces two authentic Italian water buffalo cheeses based on centuries-old recipes: Mozzarela di Bufala and Bocconcini di Bufala. They buy all of the water buffalo milk produced from the Island’s three water buffalo dairies and distribute the cheese throughout Vancouver Island and to several distributors in the western provinces.
“Up until last year, before the McClintock and Port Alberni dairies began production, we never had enough milk to expand any further,” Smith says. “Now, we are looking at making other products. We’ve made water buffalo yogurt, Brie and paneer—which is a traditional high protein cooking cheese used in Indian curries.”
While milk is an obvious byproduct of a water buffalo dairy, meat is the second part of the agricultural equation. Water buffalo meat is said to be lean and tasty, containing less than one-fourth the amount of fat and half the cholesterol of beef. Cooked, it closely resembles and tastes like lightly marbled beef.
McClintock says that the females are far too rare and expensive to butcher—to buy a young heifer is about $3,500 plus transportation costs. But, obviously, something needs to be done with the bull calves that are born every year. Each dairy farm can only realistically have one or two bulls.
This is where Marc Vance from Island Bison, enters the picture. He buys the water buffalo bull calves and his four children, ranging in age from six to 16, have taken on the project of bottle-feeding all of the buffalo babies that come to their farm.
“The calves are bottle-fed three times a day and provided with a special nutrient-rich feed supplement for the first three or four months or until they reach about 300 pounds, whichever comes first,” explains Vance. “After that, they are moved to free range pasture. The ones that are big enough are currently grazing alongside about 40 bison calves and an older male bison that we fondly call ‘Bob the babysitter.’ He helps to keep the entire herd calm and collected.”
The oldest water buffalo at Island Bison are now about nine months old and the Vance kids play with them and even ride them!
“They are very social animals … much like huge puppy dogs!” says Vance. “The kids just love them.”
The first two water buffalo calves acquired by the Vance family were named Oliver and Walter. The plan is that they will never be sold for meat but will, instead, be trained to pull carts. Vance reports that Oliver has been doing a good job pulling a cart already—much to the delight of farm visitors and the family.
“It has been an interesting experience to help make this Vancouver Island water buffalo dairy venture go full circle,” says Vance. “We have taken a product—the bull calves that are of no use to a dairy— and are working to create a product and a market that didn’t previously exist. There is excitement building amongst chefs on both the Island and the mainland as water buffalo meat has never been available here. We expect to be able to harvest our first animals later this fall.”
Whether it is water buffalo meat or milk, this new agricultural venture is truly unique and is a testament to the ingenuity and drive of the men and women who work behind the scenes in the ever-evolving farming industry in the Comox Valley. In the coming years, McClintock hopes to build her herd to 40 milking cows and she is happy to be working with water buffalo rather than learning how to make cheese and market products.
“I must admit that the first year of this dairy operation has been a blur… with having a new baby and learning how to care for a herd of animals that you have never worked with before,” she says. “The good news is that the animals are pleasant to work with and they have taught me a lot about patience. They move according to ‘buffalo time’… which is slowly, very slowly. I would much prefer to be doing this than pushing a product.”
To learn more about McClintock’s Farm visit: www.mcclintocksfarm.cp-sms.biz