Stock handling is an important aspect in taking care of buffalo. Buffalo appear more intelligent than cattle. However, many of the handling issues are similar.
Low stress stock handling courses are available in Australia and are highly recommended to provide producers with basic knowledge to help them understand the fundamentals in the handling of livestock in general. They are particularly relevant to the correct handling of Water buffalo.
Work health and safety concerns are paramount in any buffalo management operation. The following characteristics and their associated potential risks should be noted:
• Buffalo are a large animal up to 1000 kg when fully grown at 5–7 years.
• They are well armed with dangerous life-threatening horns.
• If upset or stressed buffalo will engage in either in fight or flight.
• They are fast over a short distance, quite agile and accurate with their horns.
• Depending on temperature they have reasonable stamina and are able to cover long distances at a reasonable pace.
Despite these shortcomings, if handled early and often, buffalo can have incredible affection, patience and loyalty to the people with which they are associated. Instances have been observed where three to four-year-old children in South East Asia can lead a massive Swamp buffalo bull that has been raised by the family, using only a piece of string.
The very popular “Buffalo Girls” in Queensland (four sisters) travelled around the Queensland Show Circuit during the early 2000s with Swamp buffalo trained to be ridden and doing various tricks around the show arena with all sorts of obstacles. This demonstrates that buffalo are highly trainable and intelligent and can adapt to many differing situations easily.
The “Buffalo Girls” had many acts that demonstrate the buffalo’s versatility including jumping through ‘rings of fire’.
Buffalo, even when captured in feral conditions and particularly if young, will calm and tame down more quickly than cattle under the same circumstances. The main objective in quietening buffalo is to establish trust in place of fear, so that all actions committed while in the quietening process should be such that there is no pain or stress associated with the presence of humans.
Food, as with most species, is an excellent taming agent especially when humans are associated with its provision. The quickest way to quieten a group is to move it into a secure yard that has plenty of room i.e. a maximum of 1/3 capacity and feed twice daily. Fresh and clean water should be available 24 hours per day. Usually hay of reasonable quality is enough to maintain weight. If concentrate is also required, then it is best mixed with chaffed hay first to familiarise them with it. A little coarse salt may also help by making it more palatable.
Unfortunately, molasses doesn’t seem to have the same instant attraction for buffalo as it does with cattle, but they will learn to eat it in a short time. A squeeze bottle can be used to supply buffalo with molasses and with time may provide an effective mustering aid if some individuals are trained to come to it.
If it is a feral-derived group, there will be a large range of responses to training; some will only take a day or so to be very friendly, others may take several weeks and a very small percentage will never calm down. Any that fail to respond positively should probably be disposed of in the short term as they will be a disturbing influence to the rest of the group.
There is an economic limit on the time spent to get a single animal to be tractable. This is rare except with older animals, as most will take a lead from the friendly ones to get gradually closer to the “danger”. In the early stages there is a need to be cautious, but as body language is the main form of communication with buffalo, a relaxed pose is more likely to impress than one that is very tense.
Techniques that can be employed to help in the domestication process are having:
• a radio turned on so there are human voices even when no one is around. Soothing music (rather than heavy metal) or “talk-back” is preferred. Constant noise is good, but it should also be followed by a significant rest period overnight.
• animals conditioned by calling them to food – “come on” is sufficient to attract attention.
• a calm voice that is not loud. Talk quietly and gently on all occasions.
• a hose attached to tap or pump to provide a steady stream of water. Water is a great pacifier for stressed or overheated buffalo. A stream of water is very useful for the early stages of touching and approaching buffalo in the first instance.
Many of the principles used in horse handling also work well with buffalo. There are many more books on this subject than on buffalo.
In particular, watch your body language acutely, to make sure that you are relaxed and not peering directly at any particular animal.
Low Stress Handling
One of the best pieces of advice is to invest in one of the Low Stress animal handling schools, run by several organisations in Australia. Even people who have had plenty of stock experience often change their way of operating stock once they have absorbed the theory and practice taught by these schools. Some present the background theory and reasoning first, while others just do the practical applications. Either way, they all teach the concept of a “flight zone”.