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S. Khajarern and J.M. Khajarern


In South-east Asia, the water buffaloes are predominantly of the swamp type. They are raised in small herds of 1–5 on small farms (2 to 5 hectares). Buffalo raising in this region cannot be considered as a distinct enterprise, rather it is an integral part of crop (mainly rice) production. Apart from serving as the main source of farm power, their integral roles in the small farm system include being the producers of farm manure, the removers of farm wastes, the living money savers (which act as the most reliable alternative source of farm income) and to exhibit the social status of the owners. Beef is no more than a by-product from buffaloes which are too old or not fit for work. Milk hardly plays any significant role in the small farm systems.

Traditionally, care of buffaloes is the responsibility of farm children. The animals are kept within the village, usually under the house, at night and spend the day-time hours grazing in the harvested paddy fields, along roadsides and on the edges of cultivated plots. In the rainy season, the animals are tethered on a small plot of land set aside for this purpose and supplemented with cut-and-carry grasses and/or rice straw. Minerals, except salt, are not generally offered. Water supply, for both wallowing and drinking, becomes a problem in many areas, particularly in Northeast Thailand during the dry season.

Breeding of village buffaloes is accomplished without human planning. It may occur at night or during the daytime when the animals are released and begin to mix with the village herd, as they do at the grazing or watering sites. This implies that mating does not generally occur during the rainy season when most of them are engaged in land preparation. This, along with other unfavourable factors such as the typical low reproductive rate of the species, high calf mortality and insufficient feed supplies, makes the herd productivity low and has led to a gradual decrease in size of the national herds in various countries (Bhannasiri, 1980; Toelihere, 1980). In order to cope with the increasing demands for draught power and beef, Frisch and Vercoe (1984) have outlined a strategy to increase both numbers and productivity of the herd in the region. Among these, ways of improving reproduction efficiency, draught output, growth rate and milk yield are discussed, taking into account the limitations set by the fact that the main feeds are made up of cereal straws and crop by products.


The importance of buffalo as the indispensable support to crop production in small farm systems and the need to improve its productivity have been well realized by researchers and administrators of various institutions since the early seventies. A comprehensive overview, highlighting such interests, has been given by Soni (1985).

In Thailand, the Cooperative Buffalo Production Research Project, which was initiated in 1971 to join the inter-institutional efforts in solving two key problems of the decrease of buffalo number in the national herds and the reduction of mature body weight and size, has subsequently become the National Buffalo Research and Development Center, jointly undertaking research responsibility for several aspects for improving the buffalo productivity under small farm conditions.

The research thrust includes health care, reproductive physiology and artificial insemination, genetic improvement, nutrition and the integration of milking buffaloes into the farming system in some specific regions. The research results are regularly published in its annual reports and exchanged with its regional counterparts by means of regular publishing of “Buffalo Bulletin” under the support of the International Buffalo Information Center and the Regional Buffalo Development Network or through the “Buffalo Journal” of Chulalongkorn University. Recent technical information obtained, particularly on the digestion of fibrous residue feeds and on the feeding and management of buffaloes for milk production, will be highlighted in the following sections.


As with other ruminants, the buffalo has a remarkable ability to refine coarse roughages through rumen fermentation, leading to the formation and utilization of various essential metabolites for its nourishment. Anatomically, the rumen and reticulum of the buffalo are similar to those of cattle. However, the rumen of the buffalo, accounting for over 80 percent of the stomach capacity, is heavier than that of cattle and is 5–10 percent more capacious (Sengar and Singh, 1969). The buffalo omasum has lower tissue weight and capacity but the same number of laminae, having a narrower inter-laminar space than cattle. The abomasum of buffalo differs slightly in the distribution of cellular elements in the mucosa and its digestive ability is adversely affected by high air temperature than in the case of cattle (Chalmers, 1974). With respect to comparative physiology of digestion of buffalo and cattle, agreement has been reached in results from several studies in the particular aspects of:

  1. the rumen of the buffalo calf becomes functional at an earlier age;
  2. the microbial populations, bacteria and protozoa, are more numerous in the buffalo rumen;
  3. the changes in the microbial populations, as affected by changes in season and thus proportions of food constituents, are more marked in the buffalo rumen;
  4. the rate of passage of feed through the rumen of the buffalo is slower, allowing a longer retention time and exposure to more microbial action;
  5. ammonia and soluble nitrogen disappear from the rumen fluid of buffalo more rapidly than from that of cattle, suggesting that the former utilizes protein more efficiently than the latter.

All of these characteristics tend to indicate that buffaloes have a higher efficiency of digestion than do the cattle. In his review of research results, derived from a large number of studies in the Indian subcontinent, Gupta (1988) concluded that buffaloes were more efficient converters of coarse roughages than cattle. His conclusion has been substantiated by the results of a number of trials which have shown higher concentrations of some metabolites in the rumen of the buffalo and higher digestibilities of dry matter, organic matter and crude fibre when compared to cattle. However, contradictory findings have also been regularly reported by a number of researchers such as Moran (1983). Chalmers (1974) expressed her doubts on such the claims due to the facts that :

  1. a number of trials were involved with inadequate numbers of experimental animals;
  2. studies should take into account differences in the kind of feeds, feeding levels, age and type of animals, rumen volume, rate of passage of feed, adequacy of water supply, deficiencies of vital feed constituents, management practices and so forth;
  3. rumen content of various metabolites is always dynamic, with synthesis and breakdown occurring all the time. Variations in techniques used in sample preparation and/or chemical analysis would lead to different conclusions.

In her view, enough evidence indicates that there were only small differences in the efficiency of rumen digestion of fibre in cattle and buffaloes. However, she agrees that buffalo can utilize poor quality roughages more efficiently than cattle. A limited number of studies along these lines have been recently conducted with swamp buffaloes compared to Zebu cattle. Wanapat (1984) compared the dry matter degradability of 7 intact protein feeds by using the nylon bag technique on swamp buffalo and Brahman cross bulls being fed rice straw or urea-treated rice straw with 200 g/d fish meal. It was found that the DM degradability in buffalo was slightly higher than that in cattle, regardless of types of rice straw fed, at any 4-hour period ranging from 0 to 24 hours after suspension (Table 1).

Table 1. Dry matter degradability (%) of protein sources in the rumen of cattle and water buffalo.
Duration (h.)
Source 0 4 8 12 24
Fish meal
Buffalo 14.9 15.7 16.7 33.1 24.4 27.1 31.5 29.6 37.7 41.5
Cattle 15.5 16.3 26.3 29.0 25.3 27.1 29.4 27.9 36.0 39.6
Soybean meal
Buffalo 23.5 33.9 29.4 44.5 34.2 31.3 33.8 38.5 66.7 66.1
Cattle 25.8 28.9 31.4 39.7 29.5 37.0 42.1 42.4 54.5 63.1
Leucaena leaf meal
Buffalo 11.4 25.3 20.3 22.9 23.5 20.1 28.1 30.7 32.0 48.6
Cattle 9.0 23.3 26.5 26.1 23.5 21.9 26.0 35.2 32.5 44.9
Water hyacinth leaf meal
Buffalo 24.9 27.6 21.4 27.5 27.5 23.3 28.7 32.4 29.9 41.7
Cattle 24.3 27.8 26.3 31.3 28.3 24.8 24.7 29.0 30.3 36.1
Cassava leaf meal
Buffalo 11.4 21.8 16.9 20.5 19.2 19.2 24.6 27.5 34.0 43.1
Cattle 14.7 16.9 19.2 21.1 22.4 21.8 21.5 24.7 35.2 45.2
Sunnhemp leaf meal
Buffalo 13.0 15.6 17.8 22.4 16.4 16.1 20.1 23.6 30.8 36.0
Cattle 10.2 21.9 13.1 20.1 20.1 18.4 21.0 22.1 24.5 27.7
Rice bran
Buffalo 8.3 15.8 18.5 37.5 24.9 30.6 29.3 39.7 45.3 49.6
Cattle 8.7 10.8 18.2 28.5 26.4 28.4 32.4 33.7 40.3 47.5
Buffalo 15.3 22.2 19.5 29.8 24.3 24.1 28.0 31.7 39.5 46.7
  ±6.4 ±7.1 ±5.0 ±9.0 ±5.8 ±5.9 ±4.5 ±5.8 ±13.9 ±9.7
Cattle 15.5 20.8 23.0 28.0 25.1 25.6 27.9 30.7 36.2 43.5
  ±7.1 ±6.6 ±6.3 ±6.6 ±3.3 ±6.1 ±7.3 ±6.9 ±9.4 ±11.0

RS = rice straw, UTS = urea-treated rice strawFrom Wanapat (1984)

The same group of workers (Chanthai et al., 1986) measured the metabolites in the rumen of a buffalo and a bullock being fed rice straw or urea-treated rice straw. It was shown that the rumen NH3-N and rumen pH in the buffalo were higher than those of bullock (5.81 v. 4.49 mg % and 7.31 v. 7.01). The total VFA's were, however, significantly lower in buffalo than in cattle regardless of dietary treatments (Table 2).

Table 2. Comparison of NH3-N, pH and total VFA between cattle and buffalo fed on rice straw (RS) and urea-treated rice straw (UTS).
Item Feed X±SEM
NH3-N, mg %
Cattle 0.47 8.51 4.49±0.26a
Buffalo 1.28 10.34 5.81±0.26b
X±SEM 0.88±0.26a 19.43±0.26b  
Cattle 7.06 7.04 7.05±0.02a
Buffalo 7.24 7.38 7.31±0.02b
X±SEM 7.16±0.02a 7.21±0.02a  
Total VFA, mole/1
Cattle 68.86 87.86 78.33±1.40a
Buffalo 58.72 72.38 65.55±1.40b
X±SEM 63.76±1.40a 80.12±1.40a  

a,b, Value in the same row or column under appropriate headings with different superscripts differ (P<0.05).

From Chanthai et al. (1986)

With a higher quality roughage, Mahyuddin and Jalaludin (1986) compared the rumen metabolites and dry matter and nitrogen disappearances by nylon-bag techniques in 4 Kedah-Kelantan cattle and 4 swamp buffaloes being fed guinea grass (Panicum maximum) ad libitum with free access to mineral blocks. It was demonstrated that the rumen pH was lower in buffalo while the VFA's level was higher than those in cattle. The rumen NH3-N levels were similar in both species and stayed at a low level after reaching a peak at 3 hours after feeding. The in situ degradability of DM and N of guinea grass showed an increasing trend throughout the first five 10-hour incubation periods and levelled off afterwards to 72 hours of incubation. The DM and N degradation rates of buffaloes (4.00±0.40, 3.90±0.55% h) were significantly higher than those of cattle (3.59±0.37, 2.83± 0.50% h).

On rice straw-based complete diets containing a 2% increment in crude protein ranging from 6 to 22 percent, Devendra (1985) compared the nitrogen utilization in 4 buffalo bulls and 5 Kedah Kelantan cattle by a balance trial. It was found that the buffaloes had higher N retention due to a significantly lower urinary nitrogen excretion than did the cattle. In both species, N intake was significantly correlated to apparently digestible nitrogen and N balance. The author stated that the DCP requirement for maintenance were 1.50 and 1.37 g/w0.75kg/day for the buffalo and cattle, respectively.

No firm conclusion can be drawn from the available data on whether or not buffalo can digest crude fibre more efficiently than cattle. The state of knowledge, however, strongly indicates that buffaloes can perform better on the poor quality roughages such as those that are available in small farms throughout Asia, namely the fibrous crop residues. In addition, the available data indicate that the buffalo utilizes protein more efficiently than cattle. This indication lends itself well to the possibility of improving buffalo productivity under the limited resources of small farms.


The swamp buffaloes are generally recognized as poor milkers when compared to the riverine breeds. The average milk yield ranges from 1.0 to 1.5 kilograms per head per day over a 270 to 305 days lactation (Castillo, 1978; Wejaratwimon et al., 1979 and Thawinprawat et al., 1985). Their potential for milk yield seems not to be greatly improved by improved feeding and management conditions (Frisch and Vercoe, 1984). However, they are of great value as the basic genetic stock from which animals with a greater potential for meat, milk and draught may be developed. Cross breeding of the swamp with the riverine buffaloes has been one of the ways to exploit the milking potential of the existing meat/draught animals in Thailand as well as in other Asian countries (Table 3). Tumwasorn (1981) conducted a comprehensive review on milk production and draught ability of the swamp-Murrah crossbred and reported that the average milk yield of the crossbred was 4 kg/d (2.0–6.3 kg/d) over the 256-day average lactation period. In his separate case study covering 6 herds of the Murrah crossbred cows in a village, he reported an average milk yield of 6.9 kg/d over a 242-day lactation. Working ability of the crossbred has been indirectly reported in terms of body weight and is not very meaningful.

Table 3. Milk yield of different buffalo breeds.
Breed Lactation length (days) Average daily milk yield (kg) Note
Local (Swamp)1 236 1.94 Partly work
Murrah×local1 277 3.73 Partly work
(M × L) × Murrah1 292 5.20  
Murrah1 237 6.60  
Swamp × Murrah2 256 4.00  
Swamp × Murrah2 242 6.90  

1 From Xiao (1988)
2 From Tumwasorn (1981) - see previous page.

Konanta et al. (1984) compared the working ability of 16 Murrah crossbred with 16 swamp buffaloes being supplemented or not with 1.5 kg/d a 3:1 mixture of cassava chips and ipil-ipil leaf meal. It was demonstrated that the swamp buffaloes had a higher work ability in terms of being able to plough more land per unit of time but at a similar speed when compared to the crossbred. In addition, the groups that were fed the supplementary diet could plough at a significantly higher speed and gained more weight than the non-supplemented ones.

Not many studies on feeding and management of buffaloes for milk production have been conducted. Dairy farmers in the region generally take the conventional feeding system, good quality forages with concentrate feeds supplementation, for granted and the available resources may not always be used at their maximum economic efficiency. Taking into account the limited availability of good quality forages under small farm conditions, the low producing milking buffaloes of the multi-purpose crossbreds may have to produce on crop residue-based feeds. An alternative approach, enabling a more efficient utilization of such feeds, has to be formulated, tried out and implemented.

One of the alternative approaches to achieve a better utilization of fibrous crop residues as feeds for milking buffaloes is pre-treatment prior to feeding. A number of studies have been done, in South Asian countries, on evaluating the feeding value of urea-treated rice straw for dairy buffaloes.

Positive responses have been reported by Khan and Davis (1981) and Perdok et al. (1982 and 1984) (Table 4). Once such pre-treatment has proved socio-economically acceptable to small farmers, much benefit can be gained. This remains to be proven.

Table 4. The performance of Surti buffaloes given untreated or urea-treated straw-based diets, with concentrates and with or without Glyricidia leaves.
Milk yield (kg/d) 2.17 2.56 2.97 3.35
Milk fat (g/d) 146 178 224 256
Milk fat (%) 6.71 6.94 7.54 7.62
Cows in milk after 10 wks 6 9 10 9
Wt gain of calves(g/d) 165 265 295 344
Wt change of cows (g/d) -93 +59 +59 +126
DM intake (g/kg W0.75) 119 123 163 178

UTS = untreated straw;
TS=Treated straw;
+C= + 1 kg concentrates/d
+G = + 6 kg Glyricidia leaves per day

From Perdok et al. (1982)

Supplementation of crop residue-based feeds with a more nutritious locally available by-products is another alternative for better utilization of the available feed resources in the small farm system. Preston (1986) and Preston and Sansoucy (1987) formulated a method of strategic supplementation in the feeding system by taking into account the ecological manipulation of rumen microbes so that the maximum digestion of dietary fibre can be achieved. In addition, supplementation of the by-pass nutrients required to correct the major constraints of milk production has been included in their recommendation. With respect to management, “restricted suckling” of the dual-purpose cow by her calf, enabling both calf growth and milk production to benefit, has been recommended. This appears to fit well with the small farm situation and remains to be tried out on South-east Asian small farms.


In order to maximise the production potential of swamp buffaloes in South-east Asian small farms, work on crossbreeding with the dairy breeds is needed. Well-planned breeding programmes, aiming to produce multi-purpose crossbreds, should be done in order to make full use of the animals which are normally engaged in crop cultivation for only 130 days a year. Performance testing of the crossbreds needs to be undertaken on farms in order to simultaneously assess their suitability under the socio-economic setups of the small farmers.

A village survey which aims to assess basic data on the acceptance by small farmers of changing the pattern of raising the draught to multi-purpose buffaloes in their systems is greatly needed. Reorientation of their attitudes toward making use of their female buffaloes for both work and milk should be advocated.

On feeding and management, work on the assessment of crop residues and farm by-products available as feeds should be initially evaluated. The improvement of their utilization whether by means of pre-treatment and/or supplementation should be investigated and further tested on farms in order to formulate practicable and acceptable recommendations, enabling a sustainable milk production system based on the small farmers' available resources. A comparative study on the conventional rearing and restricted suckling of calves should be conducted in order to assess the economic gains, taking into account the improvement in both calf growth and milk yield.


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Castillo, C.S. 1975 Production, characteristics and processing of buffalo milk. The Asiatic Water Buffalo. Food and Fertilizer Technology Center, Taiwan. pp 36–58.

Chalmers, M.I. 1974 Nutrition. The Husbandry and Health of the Domestic Buffalo. Cockrill, W.R. (ed.). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. pp 167–194.

Chanthai, S., 1986 Wanapat, M., and Wachirapakorn, C. Rumen ammonia-N and volatile fatty acids concentrations in cattle and buffalo given rice straw based diets. 1986 Annual Report. The National Buffalo Research and Development Center. Kasetsart University, Bangkok, Thailand. pp 33–39.

Devendra, C. 1985 Comparative nitrogen utilization in Malaysian swamp buffaloes and Kedah-Kelantan cattle. Proceedings The 3rd AAAP Animal Science Congress. May 6–10, 1985. Seoul, Korea. pp 873–875.

Frisch, J.E. and Vercoe,J.E. 1984 Improving the swamp buffalo of South-east Asia. Evaluation of Large Ruminants for the Tropics. Copland, J. W. (ed. ). The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Proceedings Series No. 5. Canberra, Australia. pp 37–43.

Gupta, B.N. 1988 Buffalo as an efficient converter of coarse roughages. Buffalo Production and Health. Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, India. pp 120–129.

Khan, A.K.M.N. and Davis,C.H. 1981 Effect of treating paddy straw with ammonia on the performance of local and crossbred lactating cattle. Maximum Livestock Production from Minimum Land. Jackson, M. G. , Dolberg, F. , Davis, C. H. , Haque, M. and Saadullah, M. (eds. ). The 3rd Annual Seminar, Joydebpur, Bangladesh. February 2–5, 1981. pp 164–180.

Konanta, C. , Limsakul, A. , Treephan, V. , Srisan, Y. , Onwan, N. and Konanta,S. 1984 Working capability of Murrah × Swamp crossbred and Thai swamp buffaloes. 1984 Annual Report. The National Buffalo Research and Development Center. Kasetsart University, Bangkok, Thailand. pp 107–113.

Mahyuddin, N.A.M. and Jalaludin, S. 1986 Fermentation and degradation of guinea grass in cattle and buffaloes. Livestock Production and Diseases in the Tropics. Proceedings of 5th International Conference. University of Pertanian Malaysia, Selangor, Malaysia. August 18–22, 1986. pp 9–10.

Moran, J.B. 1983 Aspects of nitrogen utilization in Asiatic water buffalo and zebu cattle. J. Agric. Sci., Camb. 100: 13–23.

Perdok, H.B., Muttettuwegama, G.S., Kaesschieter, G.A., Boon, H.M., van Wageningen, N.M., Arumugam, V., Linders, M.G.F. and Jayasuriya, M.C.N. 1984 Production responses of lactating or growing ruminants fed urea-ammonia treated paddy straw with or without supplements. Proceedings of 3rd Annual Workshop on The Utilization of Fibrous Agricultural Residues as Animal Feeds. School of Agriculture and Forestry. University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. pp 213–230.

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Preston, T.R. and Sansoucy, R. 1987 Matching animal production systems to available seed resources. Proceedings of the FAO Expert Consultation on the Substitution of Imported Concentrate Feeds in Animal Production Sustem in Developing Countries. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper 63. FAO, Rome, Italy. pp 32–49.

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Thawinprawat, S. , Na Chiangmai, A. , Sirinantagate, K. , Chatpongsri, C., Uriyapongsan, S. and Chaiyakarn, W. 1985 Preliminary study on yield and composition of swamp buffaloes' milk. 1985 Annual Report, The National Buffalo Research and Development Center, Kasetsart University, Bangkok, Thailand. pp 18–23.

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Wanapat, M. 1984 Comparative dry matter degradation of intact leaf protein sources in fistulated rumen of cattle and buffalo fed untreated or urea-treated rice straw. 1984 Annual Report, The National Buffalo Research and Development Center, Kasetsart University, Bangkok, Thailand. pp 17–20.

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