The Wills and Armstrong families imported riverine buffalo from Australia three years ago to launch a cheese making business that generates a good income from small land area. They now have a milking herd of 25 cows, plus a similar number of young and replacement stock, meat producers and bulls. They make a range of soft cheeses and yoghurt from buffalo milk and sell at the Matakana Farmers Market and through restaurants.
Buffalo are milked in many countries, notably Italy, which has a tradition of fresh buffalo mozzarella. Australia is a source of the breeding stock, plus Italian semen. Buffalo milk has two-and-a-half times the milk solids of cows milk, with 4.5% protein, 8% fat, higher calcium, the same lactose (sugar) and half the cholesterol. It is also all A2 protein, not A1 (most cow’s milk) and people with dairy intolerance are often able to consume buffalo milk products.
Whangaripo Buffalo operates in two locations – the cheese making and young stock at Dairy Flat on 60ha of leased land associated with the Redvale Landfill, where the Wills family live (Chris is operations manager of the landfill); and the Whangaripo Valley farm of 20ha where the milking herd runs and is milked. The cheese plant used to be at Whangaripo but has now been relocated to Dairy Flat and the chilled milk is transferred in pails. The Dairy Flat location is more convenient for the family members. Annie Armstrong and her mother Pam Wills are the trained cheesemakers, while Phil Armstong is a builder and fisherman who goes to Whangaripo every afternoon for the once-a-day milking. Annie has an agriculture degree from Massey.
There is no buffalo meat processing or retailing as yet.
The bull is run with the cows all year round, thereby spreading calving throughout the year, which suits the cheese production and demand.
Annie and Pam attended the cheese making school at Putaruru and are now processing several days each week. Milk is pasturised and then inoculated with standard dairy rennet and starters. They make soft cheeses such as brie, ricotta, haloumi, peccarino, blue and will also be doing fresh mozzarella. They also make some buffalo yoghurts.
All products are sold from a stall at the Matakana Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Some products are also being couriered to restaurants around the country.
Cheese processing is done in a Portacom and finished or maturing products kept in chillers.
First calving is at two and a half years and buffalo will live up to 30 years, meaning a very low herd replacement rate. Lactattion occurs at 240 to 320 days and typical milk production is four to eight litres per day, with a maximum of 10 litres. Because their milk volume is smaller, the milksolids content is higher than cow’s milk.
The milking plant is standard, with some fine tuning of the vacuum, but special buffalo cup liners from Italy are used. The cows are walked in during the afternoon and milked between 3pm and 5pm every day. The herd cows are five years old on average, after being bought from NSW as in-calf heifers in one planeload of 20 animals. The importation was two bulls and 18 heifers, but one bull died. The remaining bull is the oldest buffalo at Whangaripo – seven years old.
During a recent visit to New Zealand, Juliet Harbutt – one of the world’s leading authorities on cheese, was invited to share her thoughts on the state of artisan cheese making in New Zealand.
She claims that New Zealand cheese makers face several disadvantages – one being that most of the cheeses are sold through the supermarkets rather than in Europe where they are sold through smaller, independent retailers and cheese shops. This results in a situation where even the smallest cheesemaker in New Zealand has to get their product distributed nationwide and their cheese has to be sold in the supermarkets, adding a huge expense to the small, artisan producer.
Juliet believes there are huge opportunities for young cheese makers to make their mark on New Zealand cheeses in the same way as young wine makers did in the wine industry in a previous generation.
She says future challenges for cheese makers include distribution and cost of compliance, especially for smaller businesses.
Despite the challenges currently facing local artisan cheese makers, she says there are some word class cheeses being made here which would stack up against the European counterparts – among them Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese.