Buffalo cheese? Or to be completely correct, búfala cheese, as only the females give milk, and in Spanish words distinguish gender. The beasts to which we refer here are Asian water buffalo, and they are, literally, gaining ground in Costa Rica and other Latin countries. Twenty-two farms have buffalo herds here and produce dairy products made from buffalo milk.
Farmers find these buffalo more manageable than regular cattle because they are more docile, need less pastureland, don’t trample up the land as cows do, produce high-quality milk, meat and leather, reproduce more rapidly than cows, and are resistant to parasites that attack cattle.
You can ride them like horses – there were a few in San José’s tope in December – and, for hauling loads, one water buffalo can pull as much as a team of oxen.
In Asia, especially in India, Pakistan and China, these animals have been the backbone of agriculture for centuries. In the West, buffalo production is just getting started. Big beef producer Argentina is one country that has been developing buffalo herds and is already exporting buffalo products. Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil are also developing herds.
At the University of Costa Rica’s technical campus in the western Central Valley town of Atenas, formerly the Central American Cattle-Breeding School, Eduardo Barrantes heads a department that includes an hato of buffalo, one male and 25 females. Here, farmers and agriculture students learn about management of the animals and can test their skills at developing new products.
“Buffalo survive under more difficult conditions,” Barrantes explains, surrounded by the hefty, shaggy animals. “They don’t need human food like corn and soy beans, and in tropical countries where there is a lot of rain they can find grass all year-round. In wetlands, they eat the grass and weeds that choke up the water.”
Each male is content with 25 females, so large herds are broken down into smaller groups, he adds.
Buffalo live longer and produce milk even during gestation, Barrantes says. They produce milk until they are 25 years old. In buffalo meat, the fat is concentrated on the outside so the center part has less fat and cholesterol. Argentina exports buffalo meat for hospitals in Europe because it is healthier.
Buffalo were first brought to Costa Rica from Guatemala in the 1970s by then President José “Pepe” Figueres for use in the banana and palm fields because they can take the hot, tropical climate, Barrantes says. In more recent years, farmers have begun to see the advantages of raising buffalo; there are now about 3,000 in Costa Rica and the number is growing. An association of water buffalo producers lists 30 farms that raise buffalo.
El Porvenir, an hacienda near Guatuso in the Northern Zone, has a herd of 1,000 animals in scattered pastures. The Venezuelan owners began here in 2007 with 300 buffalo, eight males and the rest females. The herd has multiplied, and El Porvenir now sells mozzarella and other types of cheese, yogurt and other lactic products under the brand name Italacteos, with the red, white and green colors of Italy on the label.
Hacienda Santa Rita in Río Cuarto de Grecia, northwest of the capital, began operation in 2009 and now has 180 buffalo. The farm produces a soft, white, Turrialba-style cheese, caramel creamy dulce de leche and yogurt under the brand name Calicanto. Both brands are sold at Auto Mercado, Walmart and other stores around the country.
Other herds are found in the northwest Guanacaste province and the Southern Zone, Barrantes says.