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Friday 28 July 2017

Buffalo soldier - how one man swapped milking Friesians for buffalo

Tired of producing good milk for bad prices, West Cork farmer Johnny Lynch swapped his Friesians for a herd of buffalo. The gamble has paid off in style

Johnny Lynch with his buffalo herd on the farm near Macroom, Co Cork; the buffalo milk is used for his Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella cheese brand and 10 people are now employed in the enterprise
Johnny Lynch with his buffalo herd on the farm near Macroom, Co Cork; the buffalo milk is used for his Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella cheese brand and 10 people are now employed in the enterprise

Ken Whelan

When Johnny Lynch came up with his idea of setting up a buffalo farm eyebrows were raised in the Department of Agriculture. One official suggested that it might be prudent to erect a big fence around his Macroom farm just in case the animals mistook their surroundings for the North American prairies.

"We had to get an import license for the buffalo and someone in the Department said we should think about building a seven or eight foot fence around the farm to keep the buffalo in. I don't know where he got that idea from - he probably Googled it - though, in fairness, I have to say today that the Department and other state agencies like Údarás na Gaeltachta have been very helpful since we first put the idea to them in 2009," says Johnny, a native of the West Cork Gaeltacht.

The idea of setting up the buffalo farm and then making mozzarella cheese from their milk came to John because his Friesian herd was producing "good milk for bad prices".

He says he had a choice of letting the family's dairy farming teeter on the edges of commercial viability or branch out into a more viable artisan cheese venture.

He could see there was a market for artisan mozzarella cheese. Together with his friend and noted cheesemaker Sean Ferry, he set about creating the Macroom Buffalo cheese brand which now sells in most of the national supermarket chains in the country.

Seven years on, 70 tonnes of the product is being produced from the milk of the 200 head of buffalo now roaming John's 150-acre farm near Macroom.

And the numbers are set to go higher this year (2017) with plans to expand herd numbers and up the mozzarella production to 90 tonnes

It's a long way from being told to build a fence to employing 10 people and producing an artisan cheese product which was previously imported for the Irish market.


"We decided on the conversation from a Friesian dairy farm to the buffalo at the beginning of 2009 and had the first 31 buffalo on the farm within months. I went to Cremona in North Italy for the stock early in 2009 and they were on the farm within three months. I sold my milk quota at the time to finance the conversation and bought the buffalo for €2,000 each and €1,000 each for the calves

"We had to get an import license from the Department of Agriculture who were sceptical at the time and had to deal with restrictions in Britain because of a blue tongue outbreak there at the time.

"But I have to say that the Department and the food authorities have been very helpful to us," says Johnny.

The herd conversion began more or less immediately and was completed within a couple of years through a buffalo breeding programme on the farm.

In parallel, the investment programme to build a cheese plant on the farm - which cost the guts of €500,000 - commenced, as did the development of the actual cheese brand for which he gives much of the credit to cheesemaker John Ferry.

Today 10 people - John Ferry and two other cheese makers together with commercial and office staff - work on the product in Macroom and not a pint of cow's milk is produced on the farm.

It has been a remarkable journey for Johnny, all the more so given that three years into the venture he was struck by bowel cancer which has thankfully cleared after treatment in Cork University Hospital (CUH).

"I can't say enough good things about CUH," says Johnny. "They were brilliant." Next on the agenda are expansion plans and these will involve leasing another 150 acres so that the cheese company can have the space to up herd numbers and provide an area for the buffalo who are being dried off. Johnny, who is in his late forties, is married to Geraldine who runs a play school on the family farm.

The couple have three sons - Kieran (16) and Jack (20) who are both pursuing their academic studies and Peter (24), a marine engineer who has just returned from an Antarctic expedition.

For the West Cork Gaelgeoir, who was a monoglot speaker of Gaelann Mhúscraí up to four years of age, the buffalo have been career and farm savers. The animals may produce less milk that the Friesians, but they have turned his Macroom farm into a profitable enterprise which does not depend on the endless vagaries of the co-op milk price.

'They are like a wife - they are with you for life, but I love them'

Buffalo are very stubborn animals who take a great deal of coaxing and cajoling when they are in a bad mood, explains Johnny Lynch.

"If they don't want to do something they will dig their feet in and that's the way it will be. If they don't want to be milked they will do everything to stop you milking them."

This degree of stubborness is not an everyday occurrence with the herd but it shows the difference between the Buffalo and Friesians which Johnny previously milked.

"But I love them, they are like a wife - they are with you for life, and it doesn't take a big fence to keep them in. An ordinary line of electric wire will do that," says Johnny.

Their feeding regime is also different from the Friesians in that they prefer haylage to silage.

"They don't like silage or any wet feed. Nothing stringy. They prefer the drier stuff so we give them the haylage. It works out the same cost wise."

The buffalo milk production levels are two thirds less than that from a dairy herd.

"You'd get 10 litres a day from a buffalo and they would milk for between 230 and 250 days a year which would be about a third of the milk you would get from a Friesian. But the fats (7.8pc) and proteins (4.6pc) would be better," says Johnny.

However, it is the add-on value of the buffalo milk which makes the Macroom artisan cheese enterprise profitable - and a lot more profitable than simply milking a Friesian herd for the co-op. The milking regime at Macroom would also differ from the normal dairy routine in that the milking is linked to the cheese production which in turn is linked to the market demands for Macroom Buffalo cheese.

"There's no alarm clock here on the farm. We could be milking at 3am if we had a cheese order to get out the door but normally we start milking at 7am," says Johnny.

He has no regrets about going down the buffalo route and points out that the enterprise has given a great buzz to the area.

"When I was milking the Friesians loneliness was a way of life. You'd be lucky to see one person around the area on any day. Now the place is buzzing," he adds.

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