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UF Experts Help Launch Water Buffalo Dairy Program

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Hugh Popenoe, (352) 392-2643
David Muller, (802) 457-5075
Wyland Cripe, (352) 392-4700, ext. 5845
Maarten Drost, (352) 392-4700, ext. 4035
Jason Aldous (802) 828-3829

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mozzarella cheese made from cow’s milk? Fuhgeddaboutit!

Traditional Italian mozzarella – the soft, elastic cheese commonly associated with pizza and pasta dishes – is made with water buffalo milk. And University of Florida experts say a new effort to promote dairy farming with the huge, horned beasts may help U.S. cheese-makers gain a foothold in the gourmet mozzarella market.

“Dairy farmers in the Naples area have used the animals for centuries,” said Hugh Popenoe, professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We believe they can catch on here.”

Popenoe, who raises about 500 water buffalo on a farm near Gainesville, is one of four UF researchers providing advice to a state-of-the-art water buffalo dairy under construction in South Woodstock, Vt. He said UF is the nation’s foremost institution for water buffalo expertise and established the first U.S. herd in 1975.

The dairy, Star Hill Farm, will make mozzarella and ricotta cheese on-site, said owner David Muller, a Vermont-based entrepreneur. Production is expected to begin later this year.

“By the end of 2003 we plan to have 100 milking animals and produce 300 pounds of cheese per day,” Muller said. “We’ll also serve as a demonstration facility to educate and assist dairy farmers interested in water buffalo. We want to show that even a small herd can be profitable.”

In Vermont, cow’s milk sells for 12 to 15 cents per pound wholesale, Muller said. Water buffalo milk could bring 75 cents per pound from cheese-makers, if consumers accept domestic water buffalo mozzarella.

He said America imports about 90,000 pounds of Italian buffalo mozzarella annually, mainly for use by high-end restaurants and gourmet shops retailing the cheese for $15 to $16 per pound. Altogether, Americans consume 2.5 billion pounds of mozzarella each year, most of it made from cow’s milk and used as pizza topping.

“Our primary market will be restaurants in New York, Boston and Montreal,” Muller said. “Freshness is critical for this cheese, and we can deliver it to restaurant kitchens immediately after it’s made.”

Unlike many cheeses, mozzarella can be made in a single day, he said. Cheese-makers first curdle milk, then drain off the whey, grind the remaining curd and immerse it in hot water until it becomes a rubbery mass. Individual pieces are pulled away and cut off, soaked in cold water and then in brine. The name mozzarella comes from the Italian word “mozzare,” meaning to cut off.

The biggest challenge Muller faces is obtaining top-quality dairy animals, said Wyland Cripe, UF associate professor emeritus of veterinary medicine and a member of the research team.

“We need genetic improvement,” Cripe said. “Most of the 7,000 to 8,000 U.S. water buffalo were bred for meat production. Initially, David Muller will use females selected with our help for good udders and dairy-type conformation. They’ll be artificially inseminated using semen collected by UF from superior male animals in Brazil and Arkansas.”

Italy and Bulgaria have the best dairy water buffalo, said team member Maarten Drost, a UF professor of veterinary medicine specializing in cattle reproduction. Eventually, U.S. producers may be able to use genetic material from these animals with high-tech methods such as embryo transfer, where fertilized eggs from one female are implanted into others for gestation and birth.

“Right now, U.S. water buffalo breeders must work with animals that are available domestically,” said Drost, who performed the world’s first successful water buffalo embryo transfer, working with Cripe and a Texas embryo transfer specialist. “Livestock imports are strictly regulated for health reasons.”

Regardless of their source, water buffalo already have caught the attention of Vermont dairy farmers, said Tom Harty, deputy commissioner for agricultural development and marketing with the Vermont Department of Food, Agriculture and Markets in Montpelier.

“They’re definitely excited about the possibilities,” Harty said. “Water buffalo aren’t going to solve all our problems, but they could become a vital part of the overall dairy industry, as sheep and goats have.”


NOTE: Jason Aldous is not quoted as a source in this story, but he is the designated contact person for the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets.