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Farmers in Asia Turn to Machines, Water Buffalos Need New Job

Southeast Asia farmers are relying more on machines than buffalo to prepare land for planting

Demand for higher productivity has pushed farmers in Asia to let go of the water buffalo as a farming tool. Today, governments and investors are finding ways to expand the iconic beast of burden's role on the farm.

Millions of farmers in Southeast Asia rely on water buffalo to prepare the land for planting. The smaller tractors they can afford leave deep wheel marks that ruin water distribution in the rice paddy. One farmer in the Philippines says he still prefers the buffalo because it loosens and turns up the soil more evenly.

But for highly productive rice farms machines have replaced slow-moving buffalos.

"Nowadays, less and less people use buffalo," said Runchuan Hengtrakulsin, who has been working on alternative uses for buffalo for more than seven years. Inspired by Italians who produce mozzarella cheese using the milk of buffalos imported from India decades ago, she has established Thailand's first buffalo dairy farm.

"I think there should be a new mission for buffalo, some new environment for buffalo, so buffalo, especially in Thailand, they should have a job to do," she added.

But local water buffalos do not produce enough milk. So, Runchuan imported murrah buffalos from India and Pakistan, which can produce more than 1,500 kilograms of milk in about 10 months.

It took her several years to cross-breed buffalos to increase milk production. Now, she focuses on expanding her product line, starting with mozzarella.

But marketing products from buffalo milk is a challenge. Thais, she says, not only think buffalo milk is inferior to cow's milk, but that it can also lower their intelligence.

"When they come here, children reject buffalo milk…. Buffalo milk is very, very rich in nutrition - higher protein, higher calcium, and low in cholesterol," Runchuan said.

And breeding buffalos, she says, is easier than imported dairy cows.

But it costs $300 a day to operate the 72-hectare farm, which is home to 300 buffalo. A profit, she says, is still a long way away.

With growing demand for milk in Asia, Runchuan hopes for greater government support and perhaps a new role for the long neglected buffalo.