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THE BUFFALO: A LEGEND BEAST




  • There are more than 200 million buffaloes in the world, about one-ninth the numbers of cattle. The buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is entirely a different species from cattle (Bos taurus and Bos indicus) and there is no well-documented case of their interbreeding. Distinctively horned, coarse-skinned, wide muzzled and spindle-shanfeed, the massive creature is hardly pretty but beneath that unlovely exterior exist a gentle, genial nature. Buffaloes remain so serene that their horns are almost never removed for reasons of unsociability. The water buffalo cools off by wallowing because its sweat glands are few and its hair is sparse. Get the animal within sight of water and it charges in right up to its ears.

    HISTORY:

    Water buffalo is one of the major livestock species of the Asian region. Depictions of the buffalo appear on seals struck about 5000 years ago in the Indus Valley. A thousand years later buffaloes were being used in China. The domestic buffaloes have been used as draft animals for centuries, they have evolved exceptional size. Some weigh 1000kg or more. In the villages of northern India and Indonesia, buffaloes are used as watchdogs because they seem to hate predatory animals. River buffaloes are thought to have spread westward into Mesopotamia, coinciding with the expansion of Islam. Buffaloes are living alarm clock. In Iraq’s southern marshes, blood feuds between families were common. People are still known to sleep with their head on a buffalo’s foreleg. If danger arises during the night the alert animal’s movement wakes them up.

    The type that developed from India westward is the “Rive” buffalo. Most often black or dark gray, with tightly coiled or drooping, straight horns, this is the dairy type that gives more than 60 percent of total milk of the country Pakistan and almost all its ghee (Deshi ghee or butter oil) for cooking. Thousands of small herds are found in towns and smaller cities of India, Pakistan, and Egypt. Sometimes buffalos are fed, managed, and milked in the busy streets. The type that developed to the east of India is the gray “Swamp” buffalo or carabao, distinguished by massive horns growing out horizontally from the forehead and sweeping backward in a wide semicircle.

    Between 600 and 900 AD, Arabs apparently took the buffalo throughout the Middle East mainly to Egypt, where this animal is now the major livestock species. In the 1200s some animals were sent to Europe and over two million remain in Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, and southern parts of the Soviet Union (now independent states).

    Buffaloes have been helping Italy’s farmers too. Italians convert the rich milk intioi mozzarella, one of the most famous cheese, some Italians have capitalized on buffalo’s love of music and sounds of the human voices. Their milking sheds ring with arias by Puccini and Verdi and the buffaloes have become so conditioned they won’t give milk without the opera blaring. Earlier this century, a few Italian river buffaloes and swamp buffaloes from for Eastern countries were shipped to Brazil. With others brought from Pakistan and India, they have multiplied to two million. In the Amazon region, numbers are increasing so fast that Brazil will maintain the world’s largest water-buffalo population by the year 2017. From Brazil, the buffalo has begun spreading throughout tropical American countries including Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Bolivia. In 1984 experts from Taiwan were flown to Haiti to teach local farmers how to work water buffaloes in rice fields. Haitian farmers now command their animals in China. Chinese scientists have crossbred the Indian-River buffalo with the local swamp type; the hybrids gave excellent milk yield. Similar hybrids created great excitement among Filipino farmers, with the help of FAO.

    During World War II Japanese invasion troops ate so many buffaloes that to rebuild the herds later, governments in the countries once occupied by Japan passed laws requiring buffaloes to be at least ten years old before slaughter. The old aged and culled animals used as a living tractor are attracting modern admirers. These animals can work in far deeper mud than can most tractors and unlike tractors buffaloes do not need gasoline or spare parts. Thus buffaloes are considered too valuable as work animals, milch animals and to sacrifice for meat. Other valuable by-products from buffalo include mounted heads, skulls, and hides.

    Alvar Munez Cabeza de Vaca was only the second Spanish explorer recorded to have seen a buffalo in the new world. In 1530, he wrote the following comparing bison meat to Spanish beef of that time:

    “To my judgment, the flesh [of Bison] is finer and sweeter than that of this country [Spain]. The Indians make blankets of those that are not full grown, and of the larger they make shoes and buckles.”

    Alvar Munez Cabaza de Vaca – 1530 a.d. (Dary, 8)

    NATURE OF BUFFALO:

    Buffalo have an entirely different nature than cattle and lives longer than domestic cattle. In working buffalo one needs to develop the philosophy of leading, not driving. Most experienced raisers keep their herds tame and manageable by treating them to special goodies periodically. Another important thing to remember is that buffalo as have a very strong herding instinct. Buffaloes have a highly structured social “pecking” order determined by seniority in the herd, size, and age. They stay in cohesive groups, and it is very difficult to cut individuals from the herd. One or two buffaloes will not be happy, and they will not thrive even under the best of conditions. To achieve best results one has to maintain several in group. If there are cows or other animals nearby they will yearn to join them. Their herd instinct is so strong that they will give up their individuality as buffalo to leap the fence and join another species so they can be part to a real herd. Pasturing two herds of buffaloes side by side will usually result in the group ignoring the fence and becoming one. Buffalo have a higher tolerance to cold temperatures than domestic cattle, and therefore exhibit greater winter hardiness. Because of the buffalo’s superior digestion of low quality feeds, it may be better suited for production on marginal rangelands

    Handling

    Buffalo get very nervous when being worked. Handle them slowly and gently to avoid exciting them. When excited, they are extremely dangerous to the other buffaloes, as well as the humans handling them. An ideal setup consists of a corral that the buffalo come to for grain or water often. It should lead into a working chute which has a gate to control the animals.

    Health and Diseases

    Buffaloes are hardy animals and seem to resist against many diseases that plague cattle. However, problems will erupt when they are maintained under close confinement. All precautionary measures should be adopted by the producers and especially maintain a control program for parasites. This is highly important when buffaloes are crowded or raised in areas of heavy rainfall and fast grass growth. Producers need to learn about parasite life cycles and then develop a deworming program that will break the cycle. Rotating pastures is not only good range management, but it also helps to break the parasite cycle.

    Buffalo are susceptible to the same diseases as domestic cattle, but their immune system appears to be more resilient. All female calves should be vaccinated for brucellosis between four and nine months of age. The calves and cow herd should be de-wormed in the fall of the year. Calves should be inoculated against any other diseases, the local veterinarian recommends. A “7-way” vaccination is recommended to protect against several forms of clostridium.

    Reproduction

    The breeding (rutting) season for buffaloes generally begins in August and continues through December. The buffalo gestation period is around 310 days. Heifers calve at age of three year. The females bear only one calf every 14 month. They usually produce one calf, and very rarely twins. The calves are cinnamon in color and weigh between 20 to 35 kg at birth; if impregnated in June should be born about mid of April. One bull can service at least 10 females. A higher ratio of bulls normally result in a lower calf crop, as the bulls will spend too much energy fighting for dominance and not enough energy for breeding the females.

    All over the world animal scientists are trying to find the ways to boost production. A work had been done on embryo transfer techniques. The value of buffalo as breeding stock varies considerably, depending on health, age of animal, and bloodlines. It’s a good thing, too, because a buffalo cow is unlikely to let you help her through a difficult birth. Buffalo will continue to produce calves at a rate of one per year, may be up to the age of their 20’s.

    Calf Production

    To protect the developing fetus, most producers advocate weaning calves in the late fall or early winter months. Others let the cows wean the calves. The calves soon learn to eat, and quickly catch up with their weaned brothers once they are turned out to graze on the new spring grass. Some advantages to manually weaning the calves in the fall are: (1) that the cows will get through the winter in better condition, and (2) that calves will start on grain and fatten more readily. The disadvantages include the increased labor required and the extensive corral system needed to keep animals separate. Also, some cows will not wean their calves, and this can result in the older calf driving the newborn calf away the following spring.

    To begin buffalo production farm, starting with calves is recommended. Buffalo calves adapt more readily to new surroundings than mature animals. It is best to buy two to three animals from the same herd. Prospective breeding herd producers should buy heifer calves. If the producer is interested in raising animals for meat production, then bull calves should be purchased.

    Buffalo meat

    The demand for buffalo meat has increased, primarily because consumers perceive it to have less intramuscular fat (more lean meat) than beef from cattle. Some also believe that this means the meat is lower in cholesterol, though this has not been proven. The research studies revealed that buffalo steaks have 46 percent less cholesterol than some of major breeds of beef cattle. Buffalo meat also has a better taste and is preferable over beef. A large proportion of the beef eaten in Asia is actually from buffalo.

    Herd Production

    Buffalo cows can remain productive until 20 years of age. The typical replacement rate for buffalo cows is 10 percent. Cows can be bred to calve at three years of age. Bull calves may be used for breeding at two years of age, although they will probably not breed any cows if there is an older, larger, more mature bull in the same herd. Bull calves can be finished at 500 to 600 kg by the age of 24 months; however, 30 months is a more likely average.

    Feeding

    Buffaloes consume 1.5 – 2.0 per cent of their body weight in feed (100 per cent dry matter basis) every day just to maintain body weight. Water buffaloes are also cud-chewing ruminants but they are more efficient feed converters than cattle. In fact, in the past buffalo were commonly promoted by stressing “how little feed it took to keep them alive.” Three buffaloes can be fed on the same amount of ration required for two cows, but feeding animals at these levels does not lead to good production. They should be stocked at the same rate recommended for cattle. Buffaloes eat the same types of feedstuffs and grasses as cattle. However, they can eat a variety of weeds and brush that cattle do not like. The digestion of buffaloes seems to be outstandingly efficient. They extract nutrients from straw so coarse and dry those cattle eating it starve. Buffalo can make a living off weeds that cattle would have difficulty handling as the implications of the buffalo’s digestive talents are enormous. Although buffalo feed is cheaper than cattle feed, buffalo gain weight more slowly than cattle, so feed cost per kilogram of gain is similar. Buffalo calves do not gain weight markedly faster when fed a ration high in concentrates. The feed and mineral requirements to fatten the calves are total requirements to get the calf from 7 to 30 months of age. A recommended feeding regime for finishing buffalo is to allow them to eat roughage free choice from weaning to about 20 months of age. Then allow the male animal’s access to concentrates ad lib for approximately four months to fatten them for slaughter. Buffalo bulls fed in this manner should yield a 400 kg carcass by 30 months of age. Because buffalo are slower to reach slaughter weight, the cash flow needs of the enterprise need to be considered.

    Buffalo on a finishing ration will require about 2.50-3.00 per cent of their body weight in feed (100 percent dry matter basis) every day. The diet for finishing animals should never contain less than 10 per cent roughage.

    The breeding bull should be fed .70 kg digestible protein, and 4-5 kg of grain in addition to their daily maintenance requirement during the breeding season. Buffalo cows should be maintained well year round. They require the most feed shortly after calving, and many advocate flushing their systems prior to the breeding season. A cow raising a 205 kg calf yearly needs a year-round average of 4.5-5.00 kg of Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) a day: 8-9 kg by the time the calf is four months old to weaning, and then less afterward. For good digestion, feed should also include at least 1 kg of roughage per 100 kg of body weight. One kg of dry matter per 50 kg of live weight will meet maximum energy requirements. As a thumb rule, hay is 50% TDN and grain is 75% TDN. Hay is usually 90% dry matter, while grain is generally considered 88% dry matter. Good silage is 30% dry matter.

    Buying Precautions

    Prospective buyers should check into the reputation of the producers. Find out in advance what charges you will be accountable for, what health guarantees are available, and who bears financial responsibility for animals injured or killed during transport. Buffalo bulls should be semen tested. Also, confirm as much information as possible regarding the animals’ age, overall condition, teeth and eyes, soundness, and quality. Finally, demand a negative brucellosis and tuberculosis test on all animals, male or female.

    Facilities

    Cattle working chutes, corrals and fences are generally too small and not high enough or strong enough to handle buffaloes. The corral and working chutes need to be 7 to 8 feet high for buffaloes. A strong squeeze chute with a crash gate and palpation cage is a must. All gates should be heavy duty, spring-loaded, locking slam gates. A 5-6 strand barbed wire fence with posts (wood or steel) 12 to 14 feet apart will keep buffalo in the pasture as long as they have plenty to eat. The producers interested in buffalo farming need to be aware of local buffalo trading places and should explore relationships with potential market outlets before investing in a buffalo herd. Buffaloes are a higher-cost enterprise because of handling facility requirements and the breeding herd investment.

    Conclusion:

    Rather than paying the huge expense of planting improved pastures to rear cattle, farmers can use buffaloes and still produce as much milk and beef.

    By.

    Prof. Dr Anjum Khaliq (Dept. of Food and Nutrition, UVAS, Lahore)

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