Elena Swegen and family have started a very unique farming enterprise in the beautiful Myall Lakes. A buffalo dairy is not something you see every day, but as you’ll see, the Swegen family are a forward-thinking, enterprising crew, and they’re also not afraid of hard work!
What’s some of your family history? Where are you from originally, and what brought you to Burraduc Farm in Bungwahl?
We moved to Sydney from Moscow, Russia, in 1995. My education is in Agriculture (soils chemistry) and my husband’s in Science (Physics/engineering). We both grew up in a big city and always dreamed of running away and living on the land. As children, we both spent our summer holidays in the country, and my most treasured early childhood memories are of riding bareback, being taken to the big dairy at 3am for milking cows and feeding the calves. Horses, dogs and later cows became a very important part of our lives.
In Australia, we have been breeding and training Cleveland Bay sport horses and Central Asian Ovcharkas (a livestock guardian breed of dog) and about nineyears ago bought some Jersey cows and started milking and making cheeses on our small farm in Picton, NSW. A couple of years later as we expanded to buffaloes, we realised we needed more grazing land, and it took us almost three years to find the right property in Bungwahl in 2014.
Describe the property … what do you know of the farm’s history?
After making the move to Burraduc, we did some research and found out the property was a prominent agricultural holding of the Great Lakes area, initially a dairy farm and later a successful beef cattle breeding and fodder growing operation, with the earliest mention in the archives dating back to 1856, when it was offered for auction by the Australian Agricultural Company.
In 1973 Burraduc was purchased by the University of NSW to operate as a rural research station. From what we learnt, the decision was based on the high rainfall area location, well structured soils, and gentle, water-retaining terrain of the property. During the next 20 years and a number of agricultural research projects, UNSW managed to further improve Burraduc pastures and carrying capacity by trialling various sub-tropical grasses. It was concluded, among other findings, that Burraduc’s lush sub-tropical pastures and climate were well suited to dairy and beef cattle, and less ideal for sheep farming.
In the later years, Burraduc remained a primary producing cattle breeding operation, running up to 400 head on the 400 acres of pasture land, until it was subdivided into 100 acre parcels in 2014 and offered for sale as separate blocks.
When we first saw “Burraduc” advertised for sale, we were not very familiar with the area, but the property’s long history of productive agriculture caught our attention. Over two years we saw many beautiful properties, mostly in the Southern Highlands area and some on the Central and Mid North Coast, but none had the required combination of parameters such as suitable terrain, good rainfall, soils and carrying capacity. We had to make one trip from Picton to Bungwahl to know immediately that we’d finally found what we were looking for.
When and how did you first become interested in buffaloes for milking?
We were milking a few Jersey cows in Picton when our daughter, Aleona, was a Veterinary Science student at Sydney University. Her interest was large animals – horses and cattle – and one of her veterinary prac placements was at Beatrice Hill Buffalo and Cattle Research Station in the Northern Territory. She was involved in the advanced reproduction project, part of which was introducing dairy genetics of Mediterranean Riverine buffalo into the existing Australian population of Swamp Buffaloes (common in the NT) via artificial inseminations with frozen semen imported from Italy. Aleona loved the buffaloes and couldn’t stop talking about them – the amazing qualities of their milk and buffalo milk cheeses. From her point of view as a veterinarian, healthier, more adaptable, disease- and parasite-resistant buffaloes were more suitable milking animals for some Australian conditions than cows. After trying fresh buffalo mozzarella, we were convinced. We purchased the only two available purebred Riverine female buffaloes with calves at foot from the Northern Territory eight years ago and started building up our milking herd.
What are the benefits of buffalo dairy produce?
Worldwide, buffalo milk is the second most produced milk in the world after cow’s milk and contains 58% more calcium, 40% more protein and 43% less cholesterol than cow’s milk. Milk analyses shows higher contents of the natural antioxidant tocopherol, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and vitamin A, and lower levels of sodium and potassium.
The other important benefit of buffalo milk is a better ratio of 6:ω3 (lower amounts of omega 6 and higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids) which, compared to cows’ milk, makes it more favourably balanced with regard to human nutrition. There are reports that approximately equal amounts of these two fats in the diet result in lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, allergies, obesity, diabetes, dementia, and some mental disorders.
Most people who tasted buffalo milk prefer it to sheep, goat and even Jersey milk – the taste is very clean and delicate, beautifully smooth and velvety. The colour of buffalo milk is distinctly white – that is due to yellow pigment, carotene, being more completely transformed to retinol (Vitamin A).
You’re currently running around 30 Riverine Water Buffalo on your property. Tell us a little about the breed …
A Water Buffalo is a very interesting, powerful and intelligent animal. They retain many wild traits which dairy cattle has lost through the centuries of selective breeding; they are sensitive, inquisitive and trainable, but can also be aggressive and dangerous if handled roughly, stressed or scared. We found our horse and dog training experience helpful and more relevant to buffaloes than our dairy cattle experience. Buffaloes require respect and patience. They don’t easily accept a new person and may refuse to enter the dairy or let down their milk if they sense any change of routine, but are very affectionate with the people they know and trust. That makes working with them challenging but interesting.
Riverine Water Buffalo and Swamp Water Buffalo are technically two different species, but they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Riverine Water Buffalo is quite different from Swamp Water Buffalo, which have become numerous in Australia’s top end since their introduction in the early 19th Century.
Swamp Buffaloes tend to be more temperamental, smaller in size, with bigger straight horns and less milk (2 – 5 L/day). These are the same type of buffalo used in Southeast Asia for ploughing and other agricultural tasks. We trialled them for milking, but didn’t have much success.
Riverine (Mediterranean) Buffaloes are calmer, larger in size, with smaller curly horns, good milk production (7 – 14 L/day) and good milk let down. Our buffalo like to be groomed and are quite affectionate with people they are familiar with. They know their names and gallop up to us when we call them. As we leave the buffalo calves with the mothers during the day and only separate the calves for the night, it makes it very convenient when buffaloes are comfortable with the routines. They are normally much more protective of their babies than cattle, but because they trust us, they are happy to be called to the dairy and leave the calves in our care until the next morning, when they come again to be milked and collect their calves.
Elena, you were recently awarded the Churchill Fellowship (sponsored by Wildman Rivers Stock Contractors), which allowed you to travel to Europe to study buffalo dairying and traditional buffalo milk cheeses. What were some of the highlights of your trip?
The focus of my project was to research the use of automatic milking systems (AMS) and other innovative technologies in buffalo dairying, with particular emphasis on how these technologies can improve the welfare of both animals and farmers. Together with my husband, Andrei, we visited nearly 30 farms throughout five European countries: Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy.
In every country we met innovative farmers and saw different types of buffalo dairy farms – from large industrial type (The Netherlands, Italy) to small scale traditional family operated (Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Germany). We also saw different approaches to buffalo management, husbandry and cheese making. Organic farming, agri-tourism, on-farm artisan cheese making and sales have become a big component of many traditional and innovative farms across Europe, well supported by governments and local communities, as it is believed to be hugely beneficial for keeping the tradition going, educating children about agriculture and food production and also giving people the opportunity to connect with nature and animals.
Switzerland, where traditional family owned dairy farms are considered part of the environment, made an impression of very harmonious co-existence of productive agriculture and pristine wilderness. Talking to the farmers, we realised their care and respect for the environment was very sincere, and every farmer we interviewed had put a lot of thought and effort into keeping their farming activities in balance with the surrounding nature, protecting the much treasured creeks, rivers and the forests from any potential damage by cattle or machinery.
Italy most certainly was the highlight destination for my study. The history and tradition of buffalo milking and cheeses in the Southern part of the country go as far back as 2000 years. Today, Italy has the most developed buffalo dairy industry and leads the world in the breeding and selection, milk recording and production, management, nutrition and reproduction techniques, as well as product quality and marketing. We tasted many wonderful buffalo milk cheeses in Italy, but the most famous of all are of course fresh Mozzarella di Bufala and buffalo whey ricotta. Both these fresh cheeses are produced and consumed in Southern Italy in very impressive volumes. Italian consumers are very well educated in the nuances of tastes and quality of their much loved Mozzarella. Many buffalo dairy farms have small cheesemaking facilities and sell freshly made cheeses in shops either attached to the cheesemaking room on the farm or nearby. Mozzarella is made by traditional methods with only four simple ingredients – the freshest possible buffalo milk, salt, culture and rennet – and is sold and eaten usually within hours of production. Most cheese makers believe that for best quality mozzarella, the milk must be very fresh and not pasteurised. The taste of industrially produced mozzarella with the use of preservatives to increase its shelf life is remarkably different to the divinely fresh traditional handmade Mozzarella di Bufala. It is so amazing; we very quickly become addicted to it and had it for breakfast and lunch every day for three weeks in Italy!
You observed several robotic milking systems while you were overseas. What do you believe are the advantages of these systems?
We had the opportunity to observe and analyse the performances of the AMS in Italy and The Netherlands and can confirm that automatic milking is highly compatible with buffalo and can positively influence the industry’s future. The ability of the buffalo to determine their own milking routine within the automatic milking system is revolutionary. It reduces the stress levels, as the animals are not crowded together at specific milking times, but choose their own time to be milked. Lower ranked animals are not bullied by others, as they have more freedom to decide when to come for milking. The robot is well designed to take good care of cleaning and drying the udder, it recognises the individual cow entering the milking station and can be programmed to give a specified amount of feed and supplement according to her records, depending on her production level and other parameters. It monitors the milk flow from each quarter of the udder and takes each cup off when the quarter is emptied – this prevents over-milking and damage to the teats. The robot also detects any traces of blood in the milk and diverts the milk to a separate container away from the main vat.
There are many other advanced features which offer more comfort for the animal, promote udder health and better milk quality. It has been proven that Automatic Milking Systems enhance production of dairy cows, animal welfare and farmer lifestyle and now after our research trip we really believe that, with a few modifications to accommodate the size and the horns of buffaloes, and good technical support, robotic systems can successfully be adopted for buffaloes with even greater benefits.
Buffaloes are more sensitive than cows and are difficult animals to deal with in conventional milking systems; they stress easily, they don’t like new people or change of routine and have the ability to completely withdraw milk if they are stressed or uncomfortable. In conventional milking systems, oxytocin injections are often used at the beginning of milking to stimulate milk release. Robotic milking is very consistent and buffaloes are more relaxed, as there is no force involved, and they can come for milking any time when they feel like it. Some animals like it so much that they want to be milked more often than twice a day, which usually results in higher production.
What are your future plans?
We will work towards implementing the best available farming practices at Burraduc and further developing the farm to promote the innovative technologies, environmentally friendly agriculture and traditional buffalo milk cheeses.
Our aim is first of all, is to be able to offer top quality fresh dairy produce in the Great Lakes area. We really hope our organic buffalo dairy and farmstead cheese project can help preserve Burraduc’s rural legacy, while also maintaining and improving biodiversity and the natural environment.
Burraduc not only has lush pastures and a long rural history, but is also around the corner from the magnificent Myall Lake and boasts a healthy diversity of wildlife. We strongly believe in the farmers’ role in conservation; the natural environment is no less important for us than productivity.
We have fantastic neighbours and through local sustainable farming and Landcare groups we are always meeting interesting and inspiring people with similar values, who appreciate nature, simple lifestyle and good food. We feel we’ve had lots of encouragement from the community for our project. More and more, people are looking for ethical organic produce and want to support small scale, environmentally conscious farming.
Where can readers find out more info?
Burraduc Farm updates and more info on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Burraduc-Farm/110916748924287?fref=ts