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Water buffalo plans key to start-up farm

The water buffalo living on Sy Bennik’s dairy farm near Rimbey, Alta., are true to their nature. The 10 females and one bull take every opportunity to wallow in puddles and lie in mud.

“They certainly like the muck,” said Brad Bennik, Sy’s son and the owner of the water buffalo.

“If there was a pond, they’d be swimming in it every day. That’s their natural habit, to cool off in the water. They definitely look for mud.”

The Alberta farm is a temporary home for the animals. Brad Bennik plans to move them to Vancouver Island this fall to start a small dairy operation along with his business partner, Steve Vermeer.

Bennik bought the animals in Ontario earlier this year. He declined to provide a price, noting only that water buffalo are more expensive than commercial dairy cows.

Dairy is in the family, and both Bennik and Vermeer work on a dairy farm in B.C., where Bennik also has a dairy cow hoof-trimming business.

“We just wanted to get into dairy, but there’s definitely no way to do it out here unless you have millions of dollars, so this is kind of a unique opportunity. It’s kind of a risk but we thought we’d give it a try,” Bennik said.

“We both kind of like the small-scale holistic way of farming.”

He and Vermeer don’t yet have property in B.C,. but with several small dairies going out of business on the island, he thinks there will be lease or purchase options.

The plan is to milk the water buffalo and sell it to make mozzarella cheese, a high end product that Bennik said is attracting attention from health food stores and high-end restaurants, where buffalo mozzarella is often seen on the menu.

He thinks a cheese-maker on the island will be the initial market for water buffalo milk.

The animals are fairly easy keepers. In terms of production, they are fed more like beef cattle than dairy animals, but with little grain.

They weigh 1,200 to 1,300 pounds at maturity and can be milked using standard dairy facilities, although Bennik said that has a few challenges.

“If you have patience, they’re not difficult, but its definitely different than milking your regular Holstein,” he said.

“They like to kick a little bit more and their milk let down is a little different as well. It’s a little more hands on. I kind of like that.”

Water buffalo are generally docile, and Bennik said the animals quickly surround his father when he checks them in the field.

“They’re a little too friendly, sometimes.”

The heifers will calve in spring, and Bennik said the goal is to maintain a herd of about 20 in the B.C. location. Water buffalo operations already exist in B.C., as well as in Alberta and Ontario.

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