Water Buffalo

Nguyen van Thu

Cantho University, Can Tho City, Vietnam


The water buffalo is considered to be a very useful animal in many countries, supplying draft power, meat, milk, and other by-products such as hides, horn, etc. The water buffalo is closely associated with water or mud, and with smallholder farmers in the rice fields. In recent years, buffalo production has developed well, not only in Asia, but also in Europe, South America, and other continents where the buffalo has been introduced. This article aims to introduce some basic knowledge of the water buffalo, with an emphasis on its great contribution to our living standards and improved productivity that could be better exploited for a more sustainable agriculture development in the 21st century.

The water buffalo can be classified into two breed types, the River type (2n = 50) and the Swamp type (2n = 48). River breeds consist of: 1) Asian breeds such as those in India and Pakistan (including Murrah, Nili Ravi, Surti, etc.; and 2) Mediterranean breeds found in Italy, Romania, and the Middle East. The skin of River buffaloes is black, but some specimens have a dark slate-colored skin. The horns of the River buffalo grow downward and backward, then curve upward in a spiral. The Swamp type is found mainly in China and Southeast Asia. The skin of the Swamp buffaloes is gray at birth, but becomes slate blue later. Albinoid Swamp buffaloes are quite common in some areas, for example, in the north of Thailand. Normally, the horns of Swamp buffaloes are longer than those of the River buffaloes, grow outward, and curve in a semicircle. More than 70% of the buffaloes in the world belong to the River type.[2]


The world's buffaloes are classified into two groups, the African and the Asian, with genus names Syncerus and Bubalus, respectively. According to the zoological classification,[1] buffaloes belong to the class Mammalia, subclass Ungulata, order Artiodactila, suborder Ruminan-tia, family Bovidae, subfamily Bovinae, tribe Bovini. The tribe Bovini includes three groups: Bovina (cattle), Bubalina (the Asian buffalo), and Syncerina (the African buffalo). The Asian and African buffaloes are generally similar, but there are some anatomic differences. The African buffalo includes only one species, Syncerus caffer, while the Asian buffalo comprises three species: Anoa (Bubalus depressicornis) from the Island of Celebes, Tamarao (Bubalus mindorensis) from the Island of Mindoro, and Arni (Bubalus Arnee), or the Indian wild buffalo. Of these four species of African and Asian buffalo, only the India Arni buffalo has been domesticated and given the species name bubalis. Therefore, the domestic buffalo currently reared with the name of water buffalo is classified as bubalus bubalis. It is believed that the domestication of the buffalo occurred about 5000 years ago on the Indian subcontinent, and the domestication of the Swamp buffalo took place in China about 1000 years later.


In general, the River types are mainly used for milk in South Asian countries, while the Swamp types are used for draft power in Southeast Asian countries and China (Table 1). However, both the River and Swamp types have been used for multiple purposes such as work, milk, meat, manure, fuel, etc. by small farmers in different crop livestock farming systems. In addition, crossbreeding programs of the River and Swamp buffaloes have shown great potential for improving meat, work, and milk outputs. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated the nutritional value of water buffalo meat and compared it to beef and chicken. The findings showed that water buffalo meat has 41% less cholesterol, 92% less fat, and 56% fewer calories than traditional beef. Furthermore, there are as yet no reports on the occurrence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, in buffaloes in any part of Asia.[4]

The milk yield of the buffalo is lower than that of cattle, and average milk production is 1500 kg per lactation. However, some individuals can produce 3500 kg per lactation. Buffalo milk has high nutritive value and is excellent for the preparation of dairy products. Using

Table 1 Plowing and harrowing performance of swamp buffaloes in the Mekong delta, Vietnam

Table 1 Plowing and harrowing performance of swamp buffaloes in the Mekong delta, Vietnam



(na = 24)

(na = 24)


Mean ± std

Mean ± std

Plowing timeb




Plowed area

0.29 ±0.025

0.31 ±0.035


Harrowing timeb




Harrowed area




buffaloes for a single purpose makes them less competitive with cattle and tractors. This is believed to be an important reason for the serious decline of the buffalo population in a number of Southeast Asian countries, including some parts of Vietnam. Alexiev reported that the Swamp-type Wenzhou buffalo in China can give an average milk yield of 1030 kg per 280-day lactation.[2] Thus, milk production of the Swamp buffalo is sufficient for family consumption. In addition, the Swamp buffalo provides draft power, and thus has potential in rural areas of China and Southeast Asian countries. In Europe and the Near East, the main purpose of raising buffaloes is for milk. Milk can be used for liquid consumption and making different cheeses or yogurt, particularly in Italy, where most of the buffalo milk is used for making a well-known cheese called Italian Mozarella, which retails at a very high price.[5,6]

The total number of buffalo in the World in 2002 was about 167,126,000 and it is increasing, particularly in India, China, Brazil, etc., where the River buffaloes are raised. However, there is a serious reduction of the Swamp buffalo population in some countries such as Thailand,

Malaysia, and Cambodia due to mechanization, over-slaughtering for meat, and other reasons (Table 2).

In many cases, knowledge from studies on cattle can also be applied to buffalo research and practices. However, differences in anatomy, physiology, feeding behavior, reproductive characteristics, and productivity between the species have been reported.[8] The water buffalo is a ruminant, and the rumen reticulum of buffaloes is similar to that of cattle. However, it is heavier than in cattle and 5 10% more capacious.[9] Studies comparing buffaloes to cattle have suggested a higher feed intake, longer retention time of feed in the digestive tract, longer rumination, less depression of cellulose digestion by soluble carbohydrates, a wider range of plant preferences, and a higher population of cellulolytic bacteria.[9] However, some authors have found no significant difference in feed digestibility between the two species. It was suggested that the better performance of buffaloes fed coarse fodder may not be related to a superior capacity for fiber digestion, but rather that they are less discriminating against plants not readily eaten by cattle. In Colombia, cattle are sometimes first used to graze pasture, whereafter buffaloes are allowed to graze the remaining and less desirable parts of the sward.[10] Recently, in a comparative study on cattle and Swamp buffaloes raised under the same village conditions, some authors reported higher bacteria, lower protozoa, and higher fungal zoospore counts in Swamp buffaloes.[11] It was also found that the Swamp buffalo can adapt better in the acid sulphate soil areas compared to the cattle and goats in the Mekong delta of Vietnam.

Based on results of a number of studies, buffalo might utilize protein more efficiently than cattle.[9] An ability of buffaloes to utilize endogenous urea more efficiently than cattle may explain in part their apparent superiority in utilizing high-fiber and low-nitrogen feed resources. It is concluded that there have been contradictory results for fiber digestion abilities of buffaloes compared to cattle. Buffaloes, however, seem to have a superior ability to consume coarse roughage, perhaps as a result of a better rumination capacity. There is evidence that urea recycling and purine excretion in buffaloes are different from those in cattle, but more comprehensive studies are lacking.

Table 2

Buffalo population (head)

in the world and in

selected countries (1970 2000)






























It may be concluded that the water buffalo has a great potential to develop in the future. A number of promising buffalo farming models have been developed in Brazil, Australia, Italy, Philippines, Colombia, etc. Valuable products of water buffaloes, such as milk, meat, draft power, and manure, are relevant for the people and our living environment, particularly with respect to the trend toward organic agriculture in many parts of the world.


1. Alexiev, A. The Water Buffalo; St. Kliment Ohridski University Press: Sofia, 1998.

2. Chantalakhana, C. Long term breeding strategies for ge netic improvement of buffaloes in developing countries. Asian Aust. J. Anim. Sci. 1999, 12, 1152 1161.

3. Thu, N.V. A Study of Performance, Physiological Param eters and Economic Efficiency of Working Buffaloes in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. In Working Animals in Agriculture and Transport; Pearson, R.A., Lhoste, P., Saastamoinen, M., Martin Rosset, W., Eds.; EAAP Tech nical Series, Wageningen Academic Publisher, 2003; Vol. 6, 165 171.

4. Ranjhan, S.K. A Vision of buffalo production with special reference to milk and meat production. Proc. Symp. Series 1 of the 8th World Conf. Anim. Prod., Seoul, Korea, June 28 July 4, 1998; 263 270.

5. Borghese, A.; Moioli, B.; Tripadi, C. Processing and Product Development in Mediterranean Countries. In Proceedings of the Third Asian Buffalo Congress, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2000; 37 46.

6. Chantalakhana, C. Long term breeding strategies for genetic improvement of buffaloes in developing countries. Asian Aust. J. Anim. Sci. 1999, 12 (7), 1152 1161.

7. FAO. Live Animals. FAOstat Agriculture Data; 2003. http://apps.fao.org/page/collections7subset = agriculture.

8. Cockrill, W.R. The Husbandry and Health of Domestic Buffalo; FAO: Rome, 1974.

9. Khajarern, S.; Khajarern, J.M. Feeding Swamp Buffalo for Milk Production. In Feeding Dairy Cows in the Tropics; FAO Animal Production and Health Paper, Wageningen Academic Publishers: The Netherlands, 1991; Vol. 86, 115 125.

10. Thu, N.V. A Study of the Use of Female Cattle and Buffalo Crusing Sugar Cane in Colombia. M.Sc. Thesis; Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences: Uppsala, Sweden, Food and Agriculture of the United Nations, 1994.

11. Wanapat, M.; Ngarmsang, A.; Korkhuntot, S.; Nontaso, N.; Wachirapakorn, C.; Keakes, G.; Rowlinson, P. A comparative study on the rumen microbial population of cattle and Swamp buffalo raised under traditional village conditions in the Northeast of Thailand. Asian Aust. J. Anim. Sci. 2000, 13 (7), 918 921.

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