Buffaloes belong to the order Artiodactyla, suborder Ruminantia, family Bovidae, tribe Bovini. Within the Bovini, three groups, Bovina (cattle), Bubalina (Asian buffaloes) and Syncerina (African buffalo), have been identified between which no interbreeding is possible. There are fundamental anatomical differences between African and Asian buffaloes which justify their separation into different genera, Syncerus and Bubalus.
Domestic buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is classified into two types:
The swamp and river buffaloes have 48 and 50 chromosomes, respectively. They interbreed and produce hybrid progeny with possibly reduced fertility due to unbalanced karyotypes.
Buffaloes have acquired several morphological features which reinforce their ability to thrive well in shaded, hot, humid areas. For instance, the melanin-pigmented skin of buffaloes is useful for defence against ultraviolet rays. Hair density in adult buffalo is only one-eighth of that in cattle, thus facilitating dissipation of heat by convection and radiation. Obviously, also the number of sweat glands is very limited in buffalo compared to cattle, resulting in a lower efficiency of sweating in buffalo than in cattle. Furthermore, the number of sebaceous glands is lower in buffalo than in cattle, however, sebum secretion shows an opposite trend. This provides effective protection to the skin while the animals are in the mud.
Moreover, skin in buffaloes is thicker than that of cattle, protecting the nearly bare body surface of buffalo from harmful mechanical and chemical agents, particularly when the animal is exposed to their effects in water and mud while swimming and wallowing. These latter behaviours, as well as shade, are essential during the hot season to dissipate body heat.
Buffaloes graze a wider range of plants as compared to cattle. The digestibility of crude protein and fibre fractions of the diet is usually greater than in sheep and cattle. This may be due to certain features of buffalo rumen function which are different from that of other ruminants. In fact, buffaloes appear to have a larger rumen, slower rumen movements, a smaller rate of outflow from the rumen, and higher bacterial activity.
The Italian Mediterranean buffalo originates from the Indian buffalo.
black, black and brown, dark grey coat. Horns are flat at the bottom, backwards and slightly outwards pointed, and backwards straightened; the top is pointed inwards. They have a compact conformation with a deep and wide chest as well as a developed pectoral. The back is short. The rump is short. The udder is medium size with squarely placed quarters and halves; the teats are cylindrical. The body weight of the adult female is 550-650 kg.
Average production for all cows enrolled in official production-testing programs was 2,221 kg of milk, with 8.24 % of fat and 4.66 % of protein.
In the past there was no market for buffalo meat, considered a by-product. Nowadays, in recent years, thanks to the utilization of modern husbandry techniques, the males are in greater demand as meat producers.
Average slaughter weight is 250-400 kg, at the age of 12-15 months.
The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) does not yet have such characteristics as to warrant the label ”dairy animal”. The buffalo bred in Italy produce almost exclusively milk with a good income.
In general the husbandry of buffalo is not that dissimilar to that of cattle.
A buffalo is capable of breeding throughout the year and having a calf every year. They carry their calf for 10 months; twin calves and calving difficulties are very rare.
Lameness and clinical mastitis are also rare in adults. Prolapse, vaginal and uterine, are the only major health problem affecting buffaloes.
Longevity is an important feature of buffalo.
While buffalo love to wallow in water it is not necessary to provide them with a facility to do so.
De-horning is not recommended as the horns provide a mechanism for body heat loss.
Housing, provided it is well constructed, can be loose yard or cubicles.
Housing for water buffaloes should give protection against thermal stress – particularly direct exposure to sun, heavy rains and cold weather. It must allow good ventilation. Common for all housing is that enough space should be allowed for each buffalo. The outdoor yard should preferably be covered with grass or maybe concrete, in order to prevent it from becoming an unhygienic mud hole in rainy periods.
Buffaloes may appear to be misplaced in a hot and humid environment. High milk production requires a high feed intake which leads to higher metabolic heat production. High yielding buffaloes thus have a disadvantage over lower yielding animals, and need more cooling facilities.
Calves should be kept in individual pens for the first month. The pens should be easy to keep clean, with shelter from direct sunlight, rain, snow and draught. By keeping the calves individually it is easier to check that they eat and grow properly and to detect illnesses. Also, naval suckling is avoided and spread of diseases is more difficult. The calves should have access to fresh and clean water at all times. Preferably, the buckets for milk and water should be outside the pen, in a steady holder within easy reach for the calf. Hereby, the calves can not splash it on the bedding. A humid bedding will facilitate growth of germs and parasites. The pen should contain a holder for hay and concentrate. These holders should be placed above the ground so that the calf cannot step or defecate in them.
Buffalo reproductive activity is quite similar to cattle. The main reproductive traits of the female buffalo are the following:
However, buffalo presents some peculiar aspects such as the reproductive seasonality and the oestrus behaviour.
The seasonality is the adaptation of some animals to coincide calving and weaning when the most favourable environmental conditions (thermal and nutritive requirements) occur. In some species this characteristic has been influenced by domestication, while in others (buffalo, sheep, goat, etc.) the domestication only partially affected animals’ reproduction.
Although buffaloes are polyoestrus, their reproductive efficiency shows wide variation throughout the year.
Buffalo cows exhibit a distinct seasonal change in displaying oestrus, conception rate and calving rate. This may be the cause of the prolonged intercalving period since buffalo calving during the unfavourable season may not resume their ovarian activity until the following favourable season, decreasing their reproductive efficiency.
In Italy, where buffaloes are fed with a constant balanced diet in place of free grazing, a distinct seasonal reproductive pattern is also found. In fact, the favourable mating period is the autumnal season (decreasing daylight length). The tendency of buffalo to seasonality depends upon the environmental characteristics of their place of origin which are the subtropical zones of North of the equator, which condition the forage availability and thus the state of animal nutrition throughout the year. Therefore, the reproductive seasonality in the buffalo does not seem to depend on diet, food availability or metabolic status, while climate and particularly photoperiod, depending on melatonin secretion, play a pivotal role. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland during the night and represents the endocrinal signal of the light-dark rhythm in the environment.
Out-of-season breeding technique
In Italy, reproductive seasonality of buffalo has strong economic implications, where milk production is utilised completely to make fresh mozzarella cheese. The demand for mozzarella cheese is mainly concentrated in the spring–summer period, while the highest milk production is given in autumn and winter.
In order to meet the market demand, Italian buffalo farmers, in the last 20 years, have introduced the so-called out-of-season breeding technique, i.e. they managed to modify the natural calving calendar by not allowing the bull in the herd when conception is undesired (from October to February. The use of this reproductive strategy is also finding interest in other countries to cope with the need to guarantee constant milk production on the market.
Oestrus behaviour in buffalo has a lower intensity than in cows and is, therefore, much more difficult to detect. Many buffalo show oestrus only at night time, and then it is difficult to detect. A lactating animal may have a slight decrease in milk yield when in heat, although it is seldom as pronounced as in cattle. The buffalo may be more restless and be difficult to milk. The most reliable sign of oestrus is frequent urination.
99% of buffaloes the world over are naturally mated. In large herds usually 1 bull used for 25 females.
In buffalo, the behaviour “mounting other females” is not as common as in cattle. It is not a good sign to detect heat in buffalo as it is with cattle.
Acceptance of the male (standing to be mounted) is considered as the most reliable oestrus indicator in buffalo. Frequent urination, bellowing, vulvar swelling, mucus discharge are also salient oestrus signs in river buffalo, but their expression is extremely weak when the bull is absent.
Both males and females are sensitive to heat stress and to changes in nutrition. These factors contribute to a lesser frequency of breeding and conception rate in the summer time.
Bulls reach sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age. Semen is produced all year round but it is highly affected by heat stress and low quality feed. The buffalo bull seems to be most fertile in spring when the volume of ejaculate and the sperm concentration is the highest. The vitality of the sperms are also much higher in spring than other times of the year. Corresponding values are lowest in summer time. Heat stress may have a negative effect on libido.
Buffaloes, generally, have more difficulty conceiving when using artificial insemination than cattle do.
The gestation period for buffaloes averages 308 to 318 days. The age of the heifer at her first calving is usually around 37-40 months (3 to 3.5 years).
Lactation and milk yield
The highest yield is reached after five to six weeks of lactation and maintained for some weeks.
In buffaloes, the highest milk yield is seen in the fourth lactation whereafter it declines.
In Italy it is recommended to keep a lactation length of 270 days in controlled herds.
Lactation and milk yield depend on both genetic and non-genetic factors. Calving interval is closely related to lactation length and milk yield. The longer the calving interval, the longer the lactation and the higher the lactation yield. However, total life time yield will be substantially less compared with a buffalo with short calving intervals.
The anatomy and physiology of the buffalo udder differs slightly from the bovine one. This has further implications for milking technique.
The buffalo has an udder similar to that of cattle in the gross anatomy. The buffalo has four teats. Extra teats can be found in the same way as in cattle. The teats vary in shape and size. Generally, they are larger than cattle teats. The front teats are, on average, 5.8 cm to 6.4 cm long and their diameter is approximately 2.5 cm to 2.6 cm. Respective figures for the hind teats are 6.9 cm to 7.8 cm and 2.6 to 2.8 cm.
The hind quarters of the udder are slightly larger than the front ones and contain more milk. The approximate ratio is 60:40 (hind:front), as for cattle. It takes a longer time to milk the hind quarters.
The anatomy of buffalo teats is slightly different from cattle teats. The epithelium of the streak canal is thicker and more compact in buffaloes than in cattle. The sphincter muscle around the streak canal is thicker in buffaloes than in cattle. More force is therefore required to open the streak canal. This is the cause of buffaloes being “hard milkers”.In cattle, the milk is synthesized in the alveoli and is periodically transferred to the large ducts and cisterns of the mammary gland and the teat. This is not the case in the buffalo, instead, the milk is held in the upper, glandular part of the udder, in the alveoli and small ducts. Between two milkings there is no milk stored in the cistern. Hence, buffaloes have no cisternal milk fraction. The milk is expelled to the cistern only during actual milk ejection. Because of the absence of cisternal milk between milking, in the teat cisterns, the teats are collapsed and soft before let down. This is the opposite of to the bovine cow, where the teats can be very hard and firm due to the presence of milk in the teat cistern.
Buffaloes are said to be slow and hard milkers because of their slow milk ejection reflex and their hard teat muscle sphincter. The milk ejection reflex appears to be inherited to some extent but it is also a product of the environment.
One reason for the longer let down time of milk for buffaloes is probably the different anatomy of the udder as compared to the dairy cow. In the buffalo, the udder cistern is absent or has a very small volume and therefore there is little or no cisternal milk available. This furthermore leads to no intramammary pressure in the cistern which would otherwise help the milk flow. In cattle, the milk is already stored in the large cistern, and milk is available for extraction immediately after preparation. The high intramammary pressure contributes in pressing out the milk.
The intramammary pressure increases at the onset of milking. It is highest during the peak flow and decreases thereafter to zero at the end of milking. The pressure is higher in buffaloes during milking than in cattle. The intramammary pressure varies between individuals and milkings. Its level is not always indicative of a high milk production.
Let down time seems to be negatively correlated to milk yield. Let down time is shorter in early and middle stage of lactation as compared to late lactation. A faster flow of milk is observed when the yield is higher.
If buffaloes are carefully selected for yield and ease to milk, improvement in these characteristics is possible. Like cattle, buffaloes can get used to different stimuli. It is clear that also in buffaloes, oxytocin release is triggered by visual or audible stimuli, such as the sight of the milker, the noise of the vacuum pump or when entering the milking parlour. The animal becomes conditioned to let-down milk and has thus developed a conditioned reflex.
Milking can be carried out in conventional cattle milking parlours, with little or no modification. In general, a heavier cluster, a higher operation vacuum and a faster pulsation rate is required.
Buffalo are more difficult to parlour train than cattle, especially when buffalo milking commences for the first time on a farm. This can be very frustrating at first, but becomes less of a problem when subsequent batches are introduced.
An appropriate milking routine is important for hygienic and production reasons as well as for creating a comfortable and smooth environment for animals and milkers. It is easier to maintain a good hygiene and to facilitate the adoption by the buffaloes to make things easier for milkers if a consistent milking routine is applied. In dairy cows it has been demonstrated that the practicing of a strict milking routine results in increased milk production.
Pre-milking is defined as actions to induce milk let-down by cleaning the udder and pre-milk in a strip cup.
Cleaning the udder should be done with a lubricated towel (washable textile or disposable paper). Separate towels should be used for each buffalo. The udder should never be splashed with water.
Pre-milking is necessary for various reasons; the most important being preparing the buffalo for actual milking and checking for mastitis or other infections. Pre-milking must be done in a strip cup, never on the floor. The purpose of using a strip cup is to be able to easily observe changes in the milk. Furthermore, the spreading of pathogenic bacteria is limited.
Pre-milking is done with dry hands and the fullhand method. The hands should be cleaned between buffaloes during the milking, if necessary.
Thus, each buffalo must be cleaned, massaged and pre-milked and then have the machine applied directly. It must be emphasized that it is not possible to clean all the buffaloes first and then apply the machines to the first buffaloes. The oxytocin release has a short duration (a few minutes). If the machine does not start milking after this time, a whole new procedure must be started after half an hour.
The buffalo should be dried off approximately 2 to 3 months before expected calving. The dry period is valuable to the buffalo, she may rest and the udder tissue is repaired.
In a high yielding herd (above 10 kg per day) the buffalo should be dried off when the daily yield falls below 2.5 kg, even if it is still more than 3 months to expected calving. This goes especially for machine milked herds.
Milk from buffaloes differs from that from cattle. Compared with cow’s milk, buffalo milk has a higher percentage of all components. The biggest difference is with respect to fat. In cattle, the milk contains between 3 to 5 %, depending on feed and breed. In buffalo milk the average fat content is usually 7 to 8% but may be as high as 13% in some breeds.
In spite of its higher fat percentage, buffalo milk contains less cholesterol (total cholesterol 275 mg and free cholesterol 212 mg per 100 g of fat) compared to cow milk (total cholesterol 330 mg and free cholesterol 280 mg per 100 g of fat) and more tocopherol (334.21 µg per kg for buffalo and 312.3 µg per kg of cow milk).
Buffalo milk fat has a higher melting point than that of cattle, due to its higher proportion of saturated fatty acids (77:23, saturated:unsaturated). Phospholipids and cholesterol are lower in buffalo milk. It is also more resistant against oxidative changes.
The content of protein, lactose and ash is somewhat higher in buffalo milk than in cattle milk. Thanks to its higher dry matter content, buffalo milk has a higher cheese yield that, however, does not seem to be due solely to the different milk quality.
The different types of casein found in bovine milk are found in buffalo milk, although in slightly different proportions. Unlike bovines, no polymorphisms have been detected for αs1, β or the k casein, except for differences in the electrophoretic mobility of αs2 casein fraction.
Buffalo milk lacks or only contain traces of β-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A). This makes the milk look very white, as opposed to cattle milk which has a slight yellow shade.
Buffalo milk contains more calcium, a better calcium:phosphorous ratio and less sodium and potassium than cow’s milk.
Buffalo meat, like the milk is lower in cholesterol and higher in mineral content than that from cows. Lean buffalo meat has less than half (44%) the total fat content of lean beef and has proportionately less saturated fat. In addition to these obvious health benefits there is the added bonus for those who are concerned about BSE, there has been no incidence of BSE in any buffalo anywhere in the world. When cooked there is little noticeable difference in the two meats, either visually or in taste or texture.
The optimum weights for killing young bulls appears to range between 420 and 520 kg (attained at 24-30 months of age). Due to the heavier head, hide and feet the killing out percentage is lower than cattle and is around 47-48%. This however is easily compensated for by paid for premium paid the healthier meat. Care should however be taken to ensure that finished animals are not over fat. This is easily achieved if excessive energy is included in the diet.