16 February 2001




Where theres muck theres money,

according to the old saying.

And its quite literally true, for one

Beds farmer. Tim Relf reports

IT was an accidental discovery. Nick Griffin was more preoccupied with what would come out of the udders rather than the backsides of his water buffalo at Bury Farm, Slapton.

He imported 120 six-month-old calves from Romania two years ago, planning to eventually milk them. But he happened to notice that the manure, within a day of passing through a separator, had completely lost its odour and was breaking down rapidly. "I couldnt believe it."

Over the weeks that followed it became darker and, after drying in the sun and wind, ended up looking like peat. Far too good, thought Nick, to spread on the fields. So he tried it on his roses. "We had a terrific display of non-stop flowering roses all summer."

He started selling the product, Buffalo Gold, billing it as a 100% natural, non-blended fertiliser. Matured over 12 months, its light, fluffy and odourless and has excellent "green" credentials, he says.

Its inaugural offering was at a Farmers Market in Leighton Buzzard a year ago. They sold two van-loads worth about £800. "It was absolutely brilliant."

They then took advantage of the big population in the area, selling within about a 15-mile radius of Leighton Buzzard. Soon, the yellow-and-black delivery car, driven by someone wearing a yellow-and-black sweatshirt delivering the – yes, youve guessed it – yellow-and-black bags of Buffalo Gold became a familiar sight in the area.

&#42 Jigsaw

Buffalo Gold brings publicity for the overall buffalo enterprise which now has open days. The compost is of interest to the public – and as its customer base spreads nationally – so itll draw more people to the farm. Itll be a virtuous circle. "Its part of the jigsaw," says Nick.

This diversification within a diversification could one day account for one-third of the income the buffalo produce. "Were going down a road of unknown potential."

The original intention had been to milk cows on the farm. The farm had been relocated from the centre of the village and a milking unit and slurry system installed. Sell the quota while it still had a value, invest in modern buildings, decided Nick, then "mothball" them until the future of the EU quota regime was known.

But arable incomes turned down. "The bank started to get twitchy," he remembers. The options were considered. One suggestion was diversifying into ducks or turkeys. Or rip out the cubicles and keep pigs. "Had we gone down the pigs route, we would have been bust by now."

Besides, he didnt want to rip out an investment that hadnt been used unless there was no viable future for anything cattle-related. Then came the idea of water buffalo. It could create an income from the dairy facilities without quota. "That was the key that made me look in more detail at running a herd here."

It seemed to make sense on all counts. The buildings were ready and vacant. The calves could be fed on the straw from the arable enterprise. Use the income from arable to grow them until they could be put in calf and start giving milk in the autumn of 2000. Unlike a lot of diversifications, there wasnt the need with this one, says Nick, to sacrifice the existing income.

He looked carefully at the likely returns. Too many people, he says, concentrate on the returns from selling breeding stock rather than the finished product when budgeting a diversification. Like the returns from alpacas wool. "Thats not sustainable."

Buffalo milk has twice the butterfat of cows milk, with higher proteins and vitamins. And, though yields are less than half those of dairy cows, its in demand to make Mozzarella cheese which is used on pizza toppings.

The meat, meanwhile – which is comparable to beef – has low cholesterol levels and no BSE history. Plus, it isnt too wacky or weird. "Ostrich might have a place – but the housewife sees it as something they see at a zoo rather than something they should be eating."

Now, as Nick learns more about the milking enterprise, hes trying to develop other sources of income – such as Buffalo Gold.

This is vital because the animals dont produce a lot of milk so it necessitates having a lot of them. "That created a lot of risk because we couldnt just dip our toe in the water because we would never have had enough milk to make it viable. The next task, then, was minimising the risk while having a lot of animals – this meant produce income in any other way we can."

&#42 Milking viewers

Soon, open day visitors will be able to watch the herd being milked from a viewing gallery. There is, it seems, a lot of interest. "The pulling power of water buffalo was likely to be greater than Friesians."

And the buffalo certainly like the attention. "They push one another out of the way to get the attention. They queue up to have their hair brushed."

This is typical of their character. Theyre docile and friendly and more intelligent than cows. "They seem to have similar intelligence to horses."

Meanwhile, Nick has no regrets about not going down a more conventional route or even selling up. "I wanted to try and create a viable return from the farm and keep it in the family. I felt I had a duty to do that.

"Pressures make you flexible," he says. "When you cant create an income from what you are doing, you change."

It is, he admits, a step into the unknown. "The only known bit that are up-front is the costs and they are quite frightening. I do worry occasionally that I am taking on too much.

"But Im not looking at failure. If it fires on all cylinders, it could be very successful."

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