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Margaret and her buffalo adventure

May 13, 2019 | Features

by Jacqui Hensel

Margaret Thompson is a spritely, energetic woman with eyes that look to the future with excitement. As someone who has lived all her life on the Hinterland, she has seen and been a part of driving wide-ranging changes and innovations in her industry, but changing the farm over to water buffalo was a leap of faith.

Margaret and her late husband, Mal, had Guernsey cows to begin with, but then Mal wanted to do something different. “He was always innovative and trying new things before anyone else.”

Mal used fowl manure to build up soil structure and fertility and irrigated different pasture types; while this is common-place now, it was a new practice then. Mal was also a founding member of Barung Landcare.

“Originally, Mal and I looked into camels, but they need drier country. We had tried goats when the kids were little. But in the end we decided to go with water buffalo. Mainly because it was different and a niche market.”

The Thompsons headed  Darwin to look at the buffalo at the Government run Experimental Farm in the Northern Territory.

Margaret Thompson with her buffalo

“We might have got cheap tickets up to Darwin but the trip home cost us $20,000, as we bought the first of our water buffalo!” Margaret laughed.

“We began milking water buffalo in 2006. There wasn’t much milk to start with and we have been building the herd since then. We have 25 to 30 cows in milking at the moment. But our herd is around 120 including cows, calves and steers.

“We import semen from Italy (currently the only supplier) to build up our bloodlines and quality of our animals,” Margaret explained.

“The water buffalo are very stubborn, it’s hard to change their mind if they get an idea in their head. However we have trained them and they’ve gotten much quieter. Now you can do anything with them. Our bull loads into a horse float on his own!” Margaret said with pride.

“Ours are domestic and we have to have a special licence and pass accreditation every year as buffalo are a restricted animal in Queensland. They are fenced away from the waterways to restrict wallowing. We do our best to farm as environmentally responsibly as possible.

“My  family and I are working to keep Mal’s dream alive. We were just at the point where we were getting really good cows and milk when Mal got sick and he didn’t get to do much with them. He passed away in 2016, but we have decided to persevere. I think it is important for my grandkids to see a future in farming.”

 

Margaret was the first girl in Queensland to study agriculture in high school, which led her to work with Landcare as a State and National representative. In 2009, Margaret was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study water buffalo in Argentina, UK,USA, Italy and Bulgaria.

This educational tour gave Margaret the belief that water buffalo was a worthwhile and growing industry. The knowledge she gained has been used to build up a small herd of water buffalo from five original heifers. The beasts are used for both meat and milk production.

“Our milk has always gone to Trevor Hart at Cedar St Cheese, who makes mozzarella, haloumi and burrata. He’s one of the best mozzarella cheese makers around and he has won a number of awards for his cheese,” Margaret explained.

Marcus from Maleny Cheese was a keen early supporter, wanting  to try new things and as an artisanal Swiss cheese maker he was well placed to develop products for the local market from buffalo milk.

A buffalo calf enjoying the Maleny pastures

“Then Maleny Cheese had their fire and could no longer take our milk, just when we got production going well. It was a real spanner in the works,” Margaret said.

“So, now it also goes to Karen at Little White Goat who is making a Persian feta with it. She makes it with roasted wattle seeds that are an indigenous bush food, herbs and sunflower oil and it is delicious,” Margaret said with relish.

“So from there we decided to do our own label and now we are Maleny Buffalo. The IGA has been selling our fresh buffalo meat so now they are selling our cheese too, soon we will be adding a range of salamis. Rob Outridge from Maleny IGA needs a medal for everything he and his team do for local producers.

“We have been a part of the Maleny IGA Local Market Days where producers come and have a stall in the store with samples for the customers. Everyone was saying what a beautiful feta it was,” Margaret smiled.

“Buffalo and goats produce less milk than a dairy cow, so it costs more to produce the cheeses. But I think you are much better off to have a little of what you really like rather than a lot of something of a lower quality. Enjoy what you’ve got.”

Maleny Buffalo are a part of the Food and Agricultural Network (FAN) who are local producers showcasing their products to all the chefs and providores in the area. Recently FAN had 65 stalls and over 300 people at a networking event.

This collaboration between Sunshine Coast Council, Moreton Bay Council, Noosa Council and Gympie Regional Council is a way of supporting local agricultural and food industries at a grassroots level.  

“People are getting more adventurous in what they are willing to try. In NSW, the buffalo products are taking prizes and getting noticed by restaurants and cafes. Here, Maleny Food Co is trialling a buffalo milk gelato. And chef Matt Golinski loves the cheese, and it is going through the high end restaurants and cafes,” Margaret said proudly.

It seems Mal’s dream is alive and well, with Margaret leading the buffalo way.

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