Buffalo could blend in with an Irish cattle herd if it wasn’t for the long, strong and dangerous-looking weapons on their heads — those horns confirm you are looking at an animal strange to Co Cork.
And so it was with a little trepidation that I arrived at Johnny Lynch’s farm, in Kilnamartyra, the home of 130 buffalos.
On greeting me, Johnny promptly suggested we go and examine a buffalo on the point of calving.
Johnny is the only producer of buffalo milk in Ireland.
A casual meeting on St Patrick’s Day, in 2009 — when Johnny was milking 50 Friesians — between Johnny and his neighbour, Toby Simmons, of the Real Olive Company, started his journey into buffalo farming.
Over a pint, Johnny and Toby discussed the possibility of using buffalo milk in produce for the Real Olive Company.
Later, they watched a video of water buf f alos being milked in England, and, within a week, the two had gone to England to see buffalo farming up close.
Thus began a new business partnership.
Over the following few months, the duo made many trips to Italy, where they sourced 31 top-pedigreed young buffalos. These arrived on the Lynch farm in September, 2009.
The first buffalo calves were born in the spring of
Now, Johnny and Toby are equal partners in the Toons-bridge Dairy, established to produce buffalo mozzarella cheese, as well as a host of other cheeses.
Business is booming; they cannot keep up with demand.
So, back we go to the buffalo on the point of calving in Johnny’s shed. “She still has a few hours to go,” Johnny says, after examining her. “She springs up the same, and the bone weakens by the tail the same way as with the dairy cow.”
Water buffalos are placid by nature, but you have to be careful around them at calving time.
“You would be very wary of them, when walking in, particularly after calving, to check if the calf is a bull or a heifer, or to take the calf away.”
“We scan the buffalos, and that helps in estimating a calving date. I move them into the calving pen a week before calving.”
The gestation period for a buffalo is ten months and one week.
“Local vet, Eoghan Buckley, scanned for us, and Eoghan has taken a real interest in them. It’s been a real learning curve for us all.”
On a typical dairy farm, you monitor cows leading up to calving, but, with buffalos, it’s the days after calving.
It’s rarely that a buffalo will experience calving difficulties. However, prolapse after calving can be a common problem.
Johnny will have 75 buffalos calving this year — 60 by June, with the remainder to calve in the autumn.
So far this year, 12 have calved, with only one exceptional occurrence — twins.
A buffalo having twins is a 10,000-to-one rarity.
“After calving, we usually tend to take the calf away after one day, and will give the calf buffalo milk for a week. We will then give the calves milk replacer, for ten to twelve weeks.
“It’s different to calving Friesians, in that we don’t do compact calving. We spread calving times out as much as possible. This is because we need milk all year round for cheese production,” Johnny says. We have been milking all year round the last two years.” All the female calves are kept for breeding.
The male calves are reared for 18 to 26 months, and then slaughtered by O’Crualaoi Butchers, Ballincollig. Most of the meat is sold in Cork’s English Market.
Before Johnny could milk buffalos on the farm, adjustments were needed in the milking parlour.
“The parlour needed to be reinforced. Because if they want to turn, they will turn, they will break a wall if they have to.”
Milking is similar to that of cattle, in that a bit of concentrate ration brings the animal in.
A buffalo will milk between 2,000 and 2,500 litres per year.
I noticed, in the tank, that the buffalo milk was whiter than regular cow’s milk. Buffalo milk contains 8% fat and 4.5% protein.
They are milked in the morning, at 6am, and the milk is then taken over to the nearby Toonsbridge Dairy.
Mastitis is very rare. Drycow tubes are not used. The buffalos dry-off naturally. Water buffalos can have a long life; it’s not unusual to milk a 25-year-old animal.
This unique farm draws a lot of attention.
The Lynch family are very accommodating to local schools, who sometimes bring students to see a different side of farming life.
“Do ye have an open farm here?” I ask.
“No, we don’t. But sometimes it looks like we do,” says Johnny.
“We get an awful lot of callers. In the summer, the buffalos would be out here in the front, and you could go up the yard to find people walking around the yard.
“There were pictures in the newspaper, one day, of people in a field surrounded by the buffalos. Pictures we never knew had been taken on the farm.
“We have road frontage, and we don’t mind people stopping for photographs, and all that. But as for walking onto the farm without permission, that is something we’d really prefer not to see happening.” Various newspaper and radio reporters have descended onto the farm. TG4 did a documentary about it, and Al Jazeera TV were there recently.
Five years on from the dairy-to-buffalo move, what does Johnny make of it all? “Well, in 2009 milk was making 20 cent a litre, things were rock bottom. We were milking 50 cows and losing money.
“I sold my quota to the coop, and that gave me money to develop the buffalo business.”
“Five years on, we are in a good place now. We have enough animals, we are accustomed to them, and we no longer need to travel abroad to see this and that.”
“Your father was alive back when you started. What advice did he give you?” I ask.
“He said ‘Go for it’.” “When we started buffalo farming, I didn’t see it being a high-risk business, but I can see now that it was. We took a gamble and thank God it worked out. It’s been a very enjoyable five years.”
We think we are invincible and that sickness is for other people. I do, and Johnny Lynch did. Then, 16 months ago, Johnny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
It’s been three months since his last operation.
“I have been up-front about the disease the whole time, and if, in a way, I can be of help to others by doing this, well, that’s great.
“I was just very lucky that I was diagnosed early.
“I spotted a small bit of blood in the toilet. I told Geraldine, and she said, ‘for God’s sake, get yourself checked out’, and I did.”
“A tumour was found, and, first, I had radium treatment to shrink the tumour, then an operation to remove it.
“And then chemo. CUH is a first-class hospital, it truly is a centre of excellence.”
Johnny was 43 when he was first diagnosed. A young age, I suggested.
“Well, that’s what you’d think, until you are inside and you look around and you see patients there in their 20s.”
“They just said I was lucky, we have it very early, that’s a great help. It was stage one.
“The cancer is gone now, with over a year. I had an operation last November to remove a colostomy bag. The chemo was probably the toughest of all. But I got there, thank God.
“And all I would say, now, is that if you find yourself in a similar position to me, don’t be afraid or ashamed or embarrassed to have yourself checked out. Time is vital.”
Johnny is married to Geraldine, who runs a nearby play-school, and they have three sons, Peter, Jack and Kieran, aged 13 to 21.
Johnny has high praise for his family’s support, and for his friend, James Roche, who looked after the buffalos and gave Johnny the opportunity to get through the setback. “That man was brilliant. I don’t know what I would have done, only for him.”
“I think the cancer has made Johnny appreciate things more,” Geraldine says. “He has more family time. Johnny has always been busy, because he is, by nature, a busy person, but I think now he puts more time aside for the boys.”
Johnny agrees. “I would certainly have changed in that way. Perhaps I have pulled myself back from more ambitious plans that I once had, and asked myself, ‘what is it all for’? Don’t get me wrong. I’m still ambitious, and there are times when I still need coaxing to pull back from a new scheme. But I have certainly come to realise that there are only so many hours in the day.”