The big cheese

Anne Lee

On a scorching, dry, 36C day in central Canterbury, water buffalo just aren’t a class of stock you expect to see out happily grazing.

Even less likely is the idea that these huge, horned beasts would soon be lining up to be milked.

But at Wairiri Buffalo, south of Darfield that’s exactly what you’ll see.

Lucy Appleton and Christo Keijzer have been milking buffalo turning their naturally A2, high milksolids milk into authentic Italian-style buffalo mozzarella and other specialty cheeses and yoghurt for the past three years.

The soft, whiter-than-white, mozzarella and other specialty cheeses are sought after by restaurants and Lucy’s dedication to learning and perfecting her Italian cheese-making skills is now attracting interest from the most discerning connoisseurs.

Friendly, gentle giants but those sweeping horns need to be kept in mind in the yard.

It turns out that all water buffalo are not the same and while they are often linked to the wet, humid tropics they’re more likely to be the swamp variety with leathery grey-black hides and wider-set horns.

The riverine, shaggy black-coated variety, that have made Italy home for more than 800 years, are the dairy cousins to the swamp dwellers and produce the high milksolids milk ideal for cheese-making.

For Lucy and Christo the idea of milking buffalo and making cheese came about 10 years ago when they were looking at what they could do on their 40-hectare lifestyle block in the Wairiri Valley.

It already had a pine block and a 16ha native bush area they have protected.

The large cloven-hoof of the water buffalo suited the sometimes wetter flats and after purchasing a few animals they then worked on breeding, using imported genetics and an AI programme, until they had the Italian-type river buffalo animal they wanted.

Christo continued with his day job as a service engineer for an oil company at Christchurch airport and Lucy trained as a cheesemaker.

‘You have to be very precise with everything throughout the process. It’s a very scientific. It’s a combination of biology, physics and chemistry.’

She then travelled to Italy to learn the very exacting techniques for making authentic mozzarella and other pasta filata cheeses (stretch curd cheeses).

“You have to be very precise with everything throughout the process. It’s a very scientific,” Lucy says.

“It’s a combination of biology, physics and chemistry.”

Milk and rennet are combined along with bacteria. Getting temperatures, the pH and the timings right are all critical to taking the curd through to a polymer that has just the right amount of elasticity.

Chloe Keijzer – stretching and shredding the mozzarella to make stracciatella di bufala.

There’s little resemblance between the genuine, white, soft, wet mozzarella Lucy makes and the grated yellow mozzarella found in the supermarket Kiwis might be more familiar with as a pizza topping.

“They’re both polymers in that they have that stretch but other than that they’re quite different products,” she says.

The pasta filata method used for mozzarella is also used to make other specialty Italian cheeses Lucy is now producing.

Stracciatella di bufala is a creamier, looser version of mozzarella and is made by stretching and then shredding ropes of mozzarella while Scamorza and Caciocavollo are firmer, aged mozzarellas.

It’s taken time to perfect the cheese-making processes and plenty of patience but Lucy says she now fully understands every step of the process.

New Zealand’s food safety rules mean Lucy also has to pasteurise the milk – something that’s often not done in the traditional Italian cheese-making process.

They sell the cheese under the Wairiri Buffalo brand and while Lucy’s focus is the pasta filata cheeses they also sell a squeaky, creamy Haloumi and creamy, rich unsweetened yoghurt.

They’re sold at local farmers’ markets, some speciality delicatessen stores and direct to restaurants with Lucy and her daughter Chloe making products twice a week.

“We want to be niche and really aim at the high end of the market,” Lucy says.

The huge animals grow to be 600-700kg and have a much livelier personality than a dairy cow.

As they trot quickly over to check out a new comer in the paddock they have their heads tilted back and to the side – giving an almost gangsta, too-cool-for-school look about them.

And while Christo gives an assurance that they’re generally quite safe to be among and they love a good head scratch, he says their sheer size and large sweeping horns mean you need to have your wits about you.

“They’re very friendly and very smart. They’ll notice straight away if there’s something different in the shed when they come in – even the smallest thing,” Christo says.

The buffalo are milked once-a-day (OAD) in the late afternoon or evenings by Christo.

They produce about five litres of milk a day each on the OAD system and will yield more if milked more frequently.

They have two milking stations and the cows walk into two fully enclosed pens alongside a pit.

Christo and Lucy are considering a milking robot as they’re used on some farms overseas for buffalo quite successfully.

The difficult part is how to manage voluntary milking or if that’s even possible with the herd and farm set up.

The large shed is fitted with sturdy pipework gates and extra rails had to be added to typical cattle height yard areas within the shed because of the buffalos’ ability to seemingly defy gravity and jump over them.

But while they can sail over a normal fence they’re very respectful of a hot wire and will stay well clear of them.

Christo says they have a real hierarchy within the herd so it’s important to stand your ground and not be submissive.

“If you let them push you around you’ll always be the bottom of the pack,” he says.

They graze pasture and do well on lower-quality pastures than their dairy cow counterparts.

The females are called cows, males are called bulls or steers and young are calves.

Christo and Lucy say the calves are removed from the cows straight after calving in the same way they’re separated in typical dairy herd.

If they’re left on it’s too difficult to get them to learn to drink from bottles.

Getting first-calving cows used to the milking procedure has to be done with care.

The shaggy coat of the riverine animals makes them suitable to New Zealand’s colder winters.

The female replacement calves are hand-reared on the farm and get plenty of handling and human contact but those first few times getting the cups on can be fun and games, Christo says.

Rather than a moo the calves let you know they want attention with a quacking sound. They like a good scratch too and even at a young age their strength is apparent.

The animals are naturally healthy and aren’t prone to lameness. They also don’t appear to get mastitis so vet bills are low.

Christo and Lucy have a year-round milking operation with cows also calving year-round.

They’re currently milking 10 cows but have about 40 animals in total including young stock.

Christo is using a synchronisation programme as part of AI with the imported Italian semen and uses an AI technician who lives locally to inseminate the cows.

Their gestation length is 310-320 days or 10-11 months.

Christo has been milking now for 600 days straight so a milking robot is a serious investment consideration for them.

There are just a handful of buffalo milking operations in NZ and while it wouldn’t be everyone’s ideal Lucy and Christo are seeing the rewards of their hard work and are producing cheeses and buffalo milk products that give a delicious taste of Italy right here.

And as the business develops they’re getting closer to the point it could sustain them without other income.

To find out where you can try Wairiri Buffalo products go to www.wairiribuffalo.nz

anne.lee@nzfarmlife.co.nz

@Cantabannelee

The authentic buffalo mozzarella Lucy Appleton makes at Wairiri Buffalo is sought after by restaurants.