Developing a water buffalo dairy operation is a novel business choice for a Northland couple. Report and photographs by Delwyn Dickey.

Phil Armstrong may have grown up on a dairy farm at Maketu, in the Bay of Plenty, but he disliked the lifestyle so much he went commercial fishing as soon as he left school, staying in the industry for 17 years.

His father would be laughing to see him in the milking shed now, he reckons.

That his son is milking water buffalo rather than regular cows would also likely have raised even more chuckles from his Dad.

School taught him how to learn, Phil says, and that was as much as he needed. From starting in the fish factory to working his way up to getting a skipper’s ticket for a commercial boat.

Then he met Annie Wills.

Having been involved with the fishing industry so long – including being away at sea for up to 10 weeks at a time, Phil saw a change would be needed.

“Fishing and family are like oil and water and the two don’t mix very well,” he says. He liked the idea he could one day build Annie a house, so Phil turned his hand to building instead.

Annie had also taken a meandering life path after starting at Massey University looking to be a vet. While she didn’t come from a farming background – her father Chris is an engineer and mother Pam worked in the jewellery trade – Annie decided agriculture was more fun and did an agricultural degree instead.

Adventure called and initially Annie headed overseas to Germany as an au pair. But then found herself driving safari trucks and hosting guests for a safari company in Botswana before visa issues saw her back in New Zealand, where she met Phil.

But which direction the two should head in together was uncertain. For a couple of years, they ran a foaling station where they took on about 20 horses each year from a stud and foaled them over a three-month season. Then they’d go on holiday.

While in Italy, on one sojourn, they were giving a lot of thought to what else they could do for a serious business on their 20-hectare property in Whangaripo Valley, near Wellsford.

They came across Italian Mediterranean buffalo mozzarella cheese for sale – it was expensive – three times the price of cows’ milk mozzarella.

It got Annie thinking. Mediterranean river buffalo were well-suited to the hot, dry Italian climate and could do well in north Auckland and Northland’s warming climate too.

They looked into it and were surprised to find, in spite of the animals being good doers including on poor quality pasture, and being well suited to the northern climate there weren’t many in the country.

In 2008 Phil and Annie imported 17 in-calf water buffalo cows, and two bulls, from Australia and started making cheese.

Water buffalo are big animals with impressive horns. Annie and Phil breed them for a quiet temperament and cull troublemakers. Because they are quite

hierarchical Phil doesn’t recommend an individual herd bigger than 40 animals.

The couple also won’t cut the horns off even though it means the animals can’t be processed for meat.

“The horns are part of the way the animals have adapted to hot weather,” Phil says. “Blood is pumped through the horns to help keep them cool.”

The animals are long-lived and will produce milk for 20 years. Unlike dairy cows which can produce between 25 and 40 litres of milk a day, buffalo only produce eight litres from their once-a-day milking.

But the milk is much higher in fat, with higher protein, lactose, vitamins, and minerals compared to cow’s milk. The higher milksolids help make it particularly attractive for butter, cream, yoghurt, cheese, and ice-cream.

Managing the buffalo is similar to dairy cattle says Phil but there are some differences. Electric fences work very well for the animals and there are only 2 wire electric fences around the farm. All the trees are hot-wired off as the animals like to rub against them and will damage them, he says.

Because they love water so much, all the troughs are partially hot-wired off to stop the buffalo climbing into them and in wet weather the animals will also dig wallows in low-lying parts of the paddocks and lie in the mud. This sometimes sees Phil hosing them down before he’ll let them in the milking shed. A standoff pad is also used in wet winter weather and supplementary feed or balage fed, plus about 10 to 15kg/day/animal of spent grain from a local brewery.

Phil built a walk-through milking shed which works well for the herd size. All of the animals have names and milking time is very low stress with the animals walking into stalls when they’re ready.

Milking is once a day, every day, which makes getting off the farm difficult at the moment, although a retired neighbour has just started doing some relief milking. The couple share all the farm duties.

With the operation taking up less than three hours in the morning Phil is able to keep working in his building business, while Annie homeschools their two children as well as cheese making and working on the entrepreneur side of the business. She has recently come up with a soap recipe but this is still at the experimental stage.

Cheese making is done at Annie’s parents’ place, an hour south at Dairy Flat, with the milk transported there every second day.

Pam and Chris will soon be moving in with Annie, Phil, and their two sons, on the Whangaripo Valley farm, the pair helping Phil to build a larger house for them all in his spare time.

This move will also see an expanded cheese making facility – at present a repurposed shipping container.

The milking herd has expanded over the years with about 30 animals at Whangaripo with youngsters on a separate property in Dairy Flat. They also sell milking cows on to other farms.

They were originally able to sell the meat for a time with the animals sent to a small abattoir in Ruakura, but this was eventually sold. Now they are only

able to sell the meat for pet food. Not having access to smaller abattoirs closer to home or being able to sell home-kill meat is a classic problem for many specialist breeders, Phil says, with the big processors not guaranteeing they can return meat from an individual farm, and most meat going overseas. They have gifted some surplus animals to be slaughtered and used as meat for the big cats at the Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary – formally Zion Wildlife Gardens near Whangarei. But with limited options, other carcases have ended up in landfill. They had looked at a portable abattoir in the past and Phil reckons it may be time to have another look at this.

Whangaripo Valley is long and picturesque, connecting the rural town of Wellsford with the sweeping white sands of Pakiri Beach – the northern entrance to the Hauraki Gulf, on Auckland’s doorstep. It still feels isolated.

The Matakana market

Their main market is very close, however, just 15 kilometres away – over the hill, at the Matakana Farmers’ Market.

While Matakana village is still relatively quiet during the week there is a big influx of mainly Auckland city day-trippers, during the weekends. The farmers’ market on a Saturday morning is a big drawcard and the place is usually packed. Locals have learned to shop early and leave before the city crowds turn up after 8.30am.

The market also has a reputation as a foodie destination and attracts chefs from the city restaurants. This has seen the restaurant trade their second biggest market after the farmers market. Over the years the range of products they produce has expanded and now, along with an expansive list of specialty cheeses, includes yoghurt and ice-cream.

The business has been doing so well, with them selling everything they make.

A few years ago the couple had to decide if they wanted to expand. But in the end that would have meant selling the small farm – which they love, and buying a bigger farm with more infrastructure and more debt.

Annie finds the view that buffalo farming is not a serious farming proposition and only suited to lifestylers annoying as it has been successful for them financially, and has enabled them to remain mortgage-free including while building their new home.

It is only their desire to stay living where they are, and keep production at a smaller, more manageable scale, that has stopped them from seriously scaling it up, she says.

With their sons Marin, now 16, and Malo, 13, they want to be able to step back in a couple of years’ time and travel with them. Keep the farm but perhaps sell the cheese-making business and take a year off, sailing home from the Mediterranean, Annie says.

  • While dairy cattle produce by far the largest amount of milk globally at 84%, buffalo produce the second largest quantity. Buffalo milk production exceeds 75 million metric tons per year and is increasing steadily at about 3% per year. Dairy milk has an average fat content of 4% and protein content of 3.5%, while buffalo milk has average fat content of about 8% with protein content between 4% and 4.5%.