Raising water buffalo for milk (and yogurt) in Northeast Florida
Growing up in western India, Punita Patel was accustomed to drinking buffalo milk and all its delicious and nutritious by-products, like paneer, yogurt, and ghee. But when she immigrated to the United States at age 17, she found buffalo milk to be more elusive. Cow milk dominated dairy product offerings, with the exception of buffalo mozzarella cheese.
When she and her family relocated from the Midwest to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, about two years ago, Patel, a neonatal nurse, quite literally decided to take matters into her own hands.
After much research and copious discussions with small buffalo farmers throughout the U.S., Patel acquired one buffalo each from New Jersey and North Carolina for her newly minted micro dairy farm, Backyard Buffalo.
“I wanted buffalo milk for my morning cup of tea, and I couldn’t find any,” she says with a laugh. “So, I started a farm.”
On a 4-acre property located along the hem of TPC Sawgrass, Patel is raising four water buffalo (along with chickens, sheep, and honey bees) and making buffalo milk dairy products that she, her daughters, her sister, and her mother sell at local farmers markets. Those products include lemon frozen yogurt, blackberry pie yogurt, ghee, cucumber raita and malai kulfi (an Indian frozen dessert), and a lineup of ancillary items like shaved coconut, dhebra (millet, yogurt, whey cheese, fenugreek greens, and spices), and chevdo, her riff on rice and beans. She also sells plain yogurt, of course.
“Yogurt is my lovechild,” Patel says.
On this particular steamy early summer morning, Patel, as usual, has been up for hours.
She began her day outside with an early morning milking of Goldie and Lola, two of the adult buffalo.
She hoists a flake of alfalfa onto her shoulders and strolls a short distance over from the hay barn to a muddy paddock, where Goldie, Lola and a newborn calf—Lil Dude—anxiously await. “They get excited like our dog does for his treats,” she quips.
The buffalo, with the exception of Lil Dude, are milked each morning in the nearby milk parlor. Each milking is bookended with intense parlor cleaning. After milking, Patel then pasteurizes the milk. The milk cools, a fermentation culture is added and the milk sets at room temperature for the next several hours.
Buffalo milk is rich in protein, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and vitamin A. While it has less cholesterol than cow milk, its fat content is higher, making it a healthy and luxurious component of cheeses, yogurt, and desserts.
“Countries like India, China, Pakistan, and Italy are passionate about water buffalo milk,” Patel says. “The milk is amazing.”
With all its flavor, one wonders why buffalo milk products aren’t more prevalent in the U.S.
For one, milk letdown, or the release of milk, is slower in buffalo than in cattle due to differences in their anatomy and physiology. Since buffalo are more sensitive than cows to changes in their environment, that can inhibit letdown, Patel explains as she distributes tufts of alfalfa to velvety black and tan muzzles poking through the gate. In all, buffalo milk yields lower profit margins and has not generally been considered worth the time or investment associated with intensive American dairy farming.
“Water buffalo milking doesn’t work in the American industrial milk setting,” Patel says.
The average water buffalo yields only 12 to 18 pounds of milk a day, versus a Holstein cow, which can milk about five times that volume per day, according to Izabella Toledo, a regional dairy extension agent with University of Florida/IFAS Florida Dairy Extension. The challenges with large-scale milking and the hot climate are likely the main reasons Florida only has three buffalo farms, including Backyard Buffalo, she says.
But that could change, says Toledo, as consumers become more open to trying ingredients and foods with deep roots in global cultures. Apart from its nutritional benefits, individuals with lactose and dairy sensitivities often have a positive experience with buffalo milk, because it has more short- and medium-chain fatty acids and smaller fat globules than cow milk.“Buffalo milk’s unique properties can make for truly fantastic dairy products,” Toledo says. “Any exotic dairy product lover who finds local or domestic buffalo dairy products should savor them.”
For now, you can find Backyard Buffalo products at the Beaches Green Market in Neptune Beach and the monthly market in Nocatee, though their footprint may expand if demand continues to grow. Their products are labeled as “not for human consumption,” a legal requirement for any dairy producer whose milk and products are not pasteurized, or not pasteurized at a legally certified processing facility. Patel pasteurizes her milk, but she is currently working with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to build a micro-processing room at the farm, so her products can be certified as Grade A milk. Her ultimate goal is to see local grocery store shelves stocked with her products.
“People were hesitant when we first launched, but we are getting a lot of positive response,” Patel says. “We continue to expand our line of products because of the support. I think we’ll introduce a blueberry ice cream this weekend and maybe some new whey-based fruit popsicles.”
For more information about Backyard Buffalo, visit TheBackyardBuffalo.com.
*This story comes to us from Edible Northeast Florida. Photos by Jesse Brantman.