It’s not a bison. Nobody in their right mind tries to milk a bison. It’s Bubalus bubalis. It’s like a cow, but much bigger, relatively hairless, ubiquitous in Asia, and in the world of common western cheesemaking, the fourth animal that provides milk (generally), other than cows, sheep and goats. They kinda look like a Texas longhorn crossed with an elephant. They can weigh about a ton, and have wide webbed feet adapted for getting around marshy territory.
Water buffalo herds are generally quite large. The most successful in milking for cheese existing in the valleys below Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. This is where the famous Mozzarella di Bufala Campana D.O.P. is mostly produced. There are also very successful herds in Northern Italy, South America, and in Asia where excellent cheese is produced consistently. America seems to be another story.
American herds have been in existence at least since the late 1700s. Considering the typical “can do” American spirit, when it comes to raising these animals for cheesemaking, we “no can do” very well. In the last few years, time and again I have borne witness to the promises. Documentaries of a small herd in Wisconsin producing consistent high quality milk get my hopes up. I find the source, ask for access to curd, then hear there are troubles with production and before you know it, the herd is no longer giving milk. Producers in California pop up after years of diligent research by the smartest minds making trips around the world to guarantee success, then after a couple years everything falls apart. There were herds in Virginia, New York, and one in Texarkana that had been producing for a few decades. They have all but faded away. Now I hear of new ones starting in Maine and North Carolina. I am hopeful somebody will create an environment where these beasts can be milked with reliable consistency, but maybe that’s the crux of the issue. Water buffalo are animals of routine and very “milk-shy” (if you are familiar with the concept of “pee-shy”, it seems similar). The animals simply won’t give milk if they are not relaxed in their environment. Interrupting their daily routine means no milk today, or maybe tomorrow or the next day, which causes difficulties if you you are trying to operate a successful dairy business. They also give very little milk, about one sixth of that which you get from a typical dairy cow. So even if you get the milk, it’s not that much. Maybe you need a larger herd so that you can afford to only milk the “happy” animals, while still getting enough milk to make an adequate amount of cheese. Maybe we should all explore this further, and come up with some real solutions behind why America is seemingly inept at water buffalo cheese production. In the meantime, Here’s a running list of all the farms I know of, and their current status of production by region/state:
Vermont Water Buffalo Company (est. 2002), formerly The Woodstock Water Buffalo Company (est. 2007)- Owner moves herd to Canada in 2009 due to lack of food in Vermont
ME Water Buffalo Co. in Appleton, Maine- Operational since 2009 and milking since 2013. They sell raw milk and mozzarella, feta, fromage blanc, yogurt and gelato made from raw milk only (pasteurization set for 2018). They also sell meat, and pride themselves on processing the entire animal from using the talo in balms and ointments to turning the horns into knife handles and pet chew toys. Herd is around 30 animals
Ithaca Water Buffalo (a.k.a. Ithaca Milk) Ithaca- They produce “Greek” yogurt, unstrained. Last heard of in 2014. Sent email. Awaiting a response. It appears that they only currently produce their yogurts using a mix of milks from their jersey cows as well as some water buffalo milk
Riverine Ranch in Asbury, Warren County. 100 animals, milking 30. Currently selling labne, yogurt, ricotta, mozzarella and camembert styles
Fading D Farm, Salisbury- Herd: 45 animals. Various hard and soft cheeses made, including mozzarella. Licensed in Jan 2016
Mulberry Farm in Stuart- closed doors in March 2016
Turkey Creek Co., Texarkana- breeding since 1985, though recent production issues have limited product availability. Herd: 200+ animals
Big Tree Ranch,Cleburne- breeding only, to my knowledge.
Dubi Ayalon has a farm near Cedar Grove Dairy in the town of Plain, but last time I asked, they were having production issues. Without an update, things are not looking good for Dubi and his herd. Any word?
Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City- Herd: 250+ animals. Still operating as of 2013, much of the milk is sold to a large mozzarella cheese company and mixed with cow’s milk before becoming cheese.
Ramini Mozzarella, Tomalas, Marin County- Founder Craig Ramini passed away due to cancer. No new info on consistent sales to restaurants currently
Double 8 Dairy, West Petaluma, Sonoma County- Gelato, maybe some cheese. I’m not really sure what their current deal is…