“Holy cow - it’s a buffalo!”
That’s what local dairy farmers said when Mitch Humphries bought the first consignment of dairy buffalo onto the Atherton Tablelands.
From cotton cocky to cow cocky and then to dairy buffalo farmer extraordinaire, there is no doubt that Mitch Humphries is a master of diversification.
It is not surprising however as ‘diversification’ has always been in his family’s blood.
Mitch’s brother Brian was one of the first people to grow cotton on a commercial scale in the Moree district of NSW, on the family property in the early 1980’s.
Mitch completed a Bachelor of Applied Science degree specialising in agronomy with honours at the then Queensland Agricultural College. He excelled in the areas of agronomy and farm management, winning awards for these subjects as well as winning the prestigious 1987 Annual Soil Science Award from the Australian Society of Soil Science.
After completing his degree, Mitch went into partnership for several years with his family on their broad acre farming operation that was concentrating mainly on cotton.
He then moved to Millaa Millaa on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland and had a stint dairying there for several more years.
It was just before ‘deregulation’ in the year 2000, that he got a ‘brainwave’ and did several
cheesemaking courses which culminated in him acquiring his Master Cheesemaker certificate.
It was during these courses that he discovered that genuine mozzarella cheese was made from buffalo milk.
The ‘diversification’ gene once again took effect and he commenced work on establishing a buffalo dairy.
“When most men have a midlife crisis they normally buy a high-powered sports car that is generally red. My father is different. He just bought a heap of buffalo and started milking them,” said his 17-year-old daughter Georgina.
In 2007 Mitch attended the 8th World Buffalo Congress, which was held in Caserta, Italy, where he was most impressed by the high regard and regional pride of buffalo and mozzarella cheese which he experienced in the south.
“Buffalo’s handled there are as quiet as dairy cows, while mine at home still need a bit more breeding and breaking in,” he said.
He learnt that buffalo mozzarella and farming is ingrained into the southern Italian culture with small and large farms and cheeseries everywhere. They also have the same issues with matching ‘supply and demand’ as it changes over the season or year and he noted the importance of getting breeding right (even though the buffalo cows may want to calve at a different time of year) so you have milk when the factory needs it.
Having won countless awards for his cheesemaking both at a State and National level, at the ‘Awards of Excellence’ - DIAA Australian Dairy Product Competition, he won a silver medal for his marinated Persian buffalo feta, narrowly missing out on the gold by just one point.
Due to the scale of his operation now, he no longer does cheesemaking.
Many prominent television shows have filmed at Mitch’s Millaa Millaa buffalo dairy including ‘Surfing the Menu’ - with Curtis Stone and Ben O’Donoghue, and ABC’s ‘Landline’ with Sally Sara and ‘On the Land’ just to name a few. His operation has appeared in magazines such as ‘Outback’ and ‘Gourmet Traveller’.
Mitch recalls a particularly memorable moment when the ABC’s ‘Surfing the Menu’ was being filmed on location at his farm.
After the filming was almost over, Mitch asked Curtis Stone to jump on a buffalo that was in the yard. Curtis quickly turned to one of his production managers and loudly exclaimed, “This isn’t in the script!”
Mitch then turned to Curtis and replied, “Here let me take ‘the edge’ off him for you, let me put my six-year-old daughter on him.” After Mitch’s daughter Georgina was put on the buffalo and had ridden him around the yard, only then did Curtis bravely proceed to get on the buffalo and once on him, proudly sat there.
Mitch Humphries’s Australian Dairy Buffalo Company (ADBC) was selected to be a finalist in the 2012 National Disability Awards.
His small Tableland dairy company was up against McDonalds and Telstra Corporation who had extensive programs and protocol in place for improving work opportunities for people with disabilities.
He beat McDonald’s in his nominated category and was the runner-up to Telstra Corporation. Mitch said that he now regrets not bringing up the topic of a McBuffalo burger with McDonalds.
When asked why he hires people with ‘disability’ in a potentially dangerous agricultural operation which involves milking buffalo’s as opposed to hiring people with no disability he replied, “Disabled people just want to be treated like everyone else and I do treat them like everyone else, including when they slip up (and who doesn’t?). Maybe it’s up to the boss and others around them to be a bit more patient that’s all.”
He said that the most rewarding thing about hiring people with disability was, “Seeing these men step up to the plate, tackle issues that may come along and move forward with the experience and confidence to know they can overcome problems in the future. Maybe in time they get the sense that everyone has a set of disabilities and abilities, and the only difference is that they just have a slightly different set to work with. Everyone has something to offer.”
Mitch was one of the first people in Australia to successfully work buffalo with cattle dogs.
His buffalo working dog pups are reared on buffalo milk and buffalo meat which makes the old saying ‘you are what you eat’ very true in this case.
When they are older they join the special elite ranks of the buffalo working dog task force.
When asked what is the difference between working cattle and working dairy buffalo with dogs, Mitch replied, “A buffalo will be more of a challenge to a working dog than cattle. Persistence in ‘winning’ is a dog’s most needed quality as well as some barking ability.”
“I don’t pretend to be a world authority on dog training, but maybe there are a few little things I have picked up. I put the pup down my shirt or in my lap when mustering. Then slowly, I let the pup walk behind the milking herd as they are coming up, but I am always there to back him up in situations so that he will not be overrun - like being a big brother. It’s all about confidence building so the dog always wins. Even if he gets touched up, I immediately encourage him to get back at the cow and I will help him move her on so that in the end he still wins. Saying that, I would never give or expect a dog to do things above his age, ability or training level. You also need to know when enough is enough.”
Mitch has been a member of the Australian Buffalo Industry Council for the past 12 years, having been a former Federal vice-president. He is currently the organisation’s Queensland representative.
For people wanting to diversify into ‘exotic animal’ industries Mitch offers the following advice.
“It’s all about the longer term so you need to have a lot of perseverance, flexibility and deep pockets. A bank manager with a good sense of humour works also.”
“Some buffalo can be quite fidgety in the bails, and certain individuals can put on a performance if they want to, but they can become even more placid to work with than the normal dairy cow if handled with gentle, patient, routine husbandry ie cowboys need not apply. They seem to be a cross between a dog (seeks human attention), a horse (cautious nature) and a cow,” Mitch said in relation to milking them.
The ‘closest call’ that Mitch has ever encountered with a buffalo was when he was carried in the crook of the horns and forehead of a buffalo bull for several metres, but put back down on his feet without injury, to body at least.
His proudest buffalo achievement has been “keeping it all afloat and now with setting up production capability interstate, seeing the first fruits of the business developing into a national leader in the buffalo dairy industry.”
He feels that working with dairy buffalo and becoming a professional buffalo milk harvester
should be part of every young man’s ‘coming of age’ experience, or midlife crisis fix (if you missed out earlier).
“Sooner or later you submit or admit (to mental facilities) to the buffaloes’ persuasive teaching skills in the virtues of patience.”
“I have many people who work with me on the farm, but in the end, we all work for ‘them’ (the buffalo).
“There is something medicinal, wholesome and reaffirming in your ability to connect with the raw human spirit, when you get a muddy tail swung at you which connects with the broad of your nose at 3.00am in the morning. That’s what drives me (insane maybe, but I am still fronting up),” Mitch said.
“All in all, I love these girls (aka my buffalo herd).”