STIRLING - Don't ever make the mistake of calling a North American bison a buffalo if you're around Martin Littkemann. Not, that is, unless you want Martin to dive into his "great big book of buffalo facts" to explain the many differences between the two animals.
And he should know.
He and Lori Smith are the owners of the Ontario Water Buffalo Company and recently brought 40 of the animals from Vermont to their Stirling-area farm with the aim of setting up a commercial milking herd to supply Toronto cheesemakers with the raw material to make mozzarella di bufala', a gourmet version of the cheese normally associated with pizza and lasagna.
Martin and Lori imported 39 heifers and a bull in April and are now breeding them, hoping to have some freshening by the end of this year and the rest by next spring.
Both are familiar with dairying. Martin had been milking Ayrshires until he sold his herd in 2002 to go into beef - he's now raising Red Angus - and cash crops on the 300 acres he bought in 1991 and another 50 he rents for pasture. He's also growing mixed grains, wheat and oats, this year, rotating from corn in 2007. Lori lived and worked on a dairy farm and the industry's terminology trips lightly off her tongue.
Martin had been casting about for something to capture his imagination after selling his dairy cattle when a friend suggested he buy some water buffalo.
" I said, You mean you can milk them?' in a commercial sense. I've been to Thailand and seen them milking the family buffalo but I wasn't aware of the commercial aspect of buffalo milk," he told The AgriNews on a recent visit to their Stirling-Marmora Road farm.
He began studying the animal, discovering just how widespread it is as a draft and dairy animal throughout Asia and in Europe, in Italy and places like Bulgaria.
An ancient breed, it has been domesticated for over 5,000 years although so little of them is know in North America that they're still confused with the bison that used to roam this continent's prairies.
There are over 140-million in Asia and in Italy there are more milking buffalo than there are Holsteins in Ontario, he said.
The more he read the more fascinated he became and in October 2007 he and Lori travelled to Italy for a world congress on commercial buffalo dairying. They toured farms up and down the boot of Italy and were fascinated to see carvings of the animals dating from the Middle Ages.
While on the tour they met a breeder form Vermont who said if they were interested in breeding the animals then they should come and see him once they got back to Canada.
They did some more research once they got home and made the decision to start up eastern Canada's first milking buffalo herd. The only other milking herd in Canada is in British Columbia and there's a family connection for Martin there since his brother, Eric assisted in the development of their mozzarella di bufala.
The couple did the required paper work, the cattle were isolated and tagged on the Vermont farm and after a four-month waiting period they travelled to the States and brought back Hastings County's first water buffalo herd.
There are about 5,000 water buffalo in the U.S. and Martin and Lori chose the Vermont operation because of the parentage of its herd. It's a 50-50 Italian-American split and Martin is breeding his animals back with semen brought in from Italy so that his first round of offspring will be three-quarters Italian riverine'.
Water Buffalo are divided roughly into two groups, Martin explains, riverine animals are more suited for dairying and swamp buffalo are more suited as draft animals.
Martin and Lori's long-term goal is to establish a herd book for their animals, keep detailed production and genetic records, put them on their own test and eventually establish their own breed.
But first there's the matter of establishing them as commercially viable.
Several dairies have indicated interest in buying milk from the Ontario Water Buffalo Company, but Martin wants to make sure his product meets his own demanding standards before he signs on with anyone.
Production records from the U.S. are scanty but about quarter of the total Italian herd is on test and this indicates that the water buffalo produces about 3,000 liters of milk per lactation. This can peak to about 5,000 liters and if the quantity of milk they give doesn't seem that impressive consider this: in Italy it averages nine per cent fat and 4.5 per cent protein. It's lower in cholesterol than cow's milk and runs one-two with sheep's milk in many of the most desirable milk characteristics and yoghurt made in the States from water buffalo milk can be eaten by the lactose-intolerant.
Water Buffalo milk has no pigment and is pure white, Martin says, as he explains the need for establishing a feeding regimen that will yield milk suited to mozzarella di bufala, a cheese so fresh and so delicately flavoured that its taste can be overwhelmed if the right feed is not used.
Martin wants to ensure that his raw product matches the cheesemaker's expertise so that a perfect product is put on the market.
And at the prices that this artisan type of mozzarella commands, it's no wonder that he wants to be sure of the product before it goes onto store shelves.
It is now flown in from Italy and the transportation costs alone can add up to about $20 a kilogram, Martin says. And that doesn't even include the cost of the cheese itself, he says.
Mozzarella di bufala is to the blocks of white cheese in the dairy case what Starbuck's dark roast is to instant coffee and there's no room for error in this high end market.
That's why Martin describes the "huge task" of getting the feeding just right before he goes commercial with his product.
And the is another important consideration: one of the most popular dishes featuring bufala is a simple Italian salad consisting of fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil and bufala, but the cheese - which only has a shelf life of 24 to 48 hours at its peak freshness - has to be produced when field tomatoes are at the peak of their flavour.
This is something he'll have to work on since buffalo go into heat in the fall when the days start getting shorter. He'll have to force them into heat so he can time their lactation to take place when demand for the cheese is at its height.
The couple will use the existing tie stall facilities left from Martin's previous dairying days.
Buffalo milk is not subject to quota so Martin and Lori can produce as much as the market will bear.
All of the animals they bought have been de-horned, an important consideration when milking a slab-sided, one-ton female in a tie stall operation. Buffalo horns are also non-conductive and they can lift electric fences with impunity, Martin explains.
They're smart, stubborn and strong but are friendly and curious, thrusting their heads like so many giant farm dogs through fences to lick visitors.
And they come by the water in their name honestly, both Martin and Lori explain.
Not long after they arrived on the Hastings County farm the animals dug their own wallow in a pasture near the barn and this summer's incessant rain has kept it brimming. The animals delight in rolling in the pit, covering themselves in mud. And they'll crowd around Martin when he ventures among them with a garden hose or a bucket of water, eager for a dousing.
The farm is situated right on the county road leading north out of Stirling and the buffalo are often pastured next to the road, drawing in curious visitors.
When Martin told a visitor recently that they were "black Charolais" the visitor responded, "They look like water buffalo to me."
The curious may be able to get a look at the shaggy animals - they have hair, rather than fur, arranged in a what looks an incredibly bad comb-over - as Martin and Lori plan to bring one to the Hastings County Plowing Match later this month.