Driving along Valley Ford Road in Petaluma, passersby might think they are catching a glimpse of a zoo. What some might guess is a part of a roadside attraction is actually a milking water buffalo herd and the dairy of new Sonoma County Farm Bureau member Andrew Zlot.
Why would someone want to start a water buffalo dairy? Surprisingly, in the case of Double 8 Dairy, the answer is mozzarella cheese. Andrew Zlot, owner of the only water buffalo dairy in Sonoma County said he was interested in making authentic Italian style mozzarella.
“Authentic mozzarella comes from water buffalo,” Zlot said. “It is originally called Mozzarella di Bufala. I realized that we import tons of fresh cheese from Italy, which really should be consumed within 48 hours of its production. But in fact, by the time we get it it’s usually 12 days old.”
This gap in the market sparked his desire to start his own water buffalo dairy right here in Sonoma County. The dairy, called Double 8 Dairy because of the double 8 herringbone milking parlor has a herd of water buffalo and jerseys that are milked daily at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Zlot said that he added jersey milk cows to the herd because he wanted to produce a pure jersey product.
“What if somebody wants to buy pure jersey milk or pure jersey mozzarella?” Zlot said. “Most bottlers or processors are mixing milk. I think that there is a niche for pure jersey-based products because currently they are hard to find. So, in addition to the 40 buffalo we milk 42 jerseys.”
To start the buffalo dairy, Zlot bought 28 bred heifers from Texas. He said that they weren’t used to a dairy environment, so the biggest challenge was to get them accustomed to going into the milk barn and to be comfortable with milking equipment on their bodies.
“The animals won’t let down milk if they are nervous or uncomfortable, so initially it was challenging just getting them into the barn,” Zlot said. “Then trying to figure out heat detection and learning how to time their breeding to be successful with AI was challenging.”
Zlot said that he knows of a couple water buffalo dairy herds in California, one in Colorado, one in New Jersey, one in Pennsylvania, however, aside from Double 8 Dairy, there aren’t any significant professional water buffalo dairies in the area. Why? Zlot explained that water buffalo, not surprisingly, are a hard animal to profit from. That is, unless they produce more milk. This is a goal Zlot said he is hoping to achieve.
Double 8 Dairy is currently in a growth phase. The goal is be able to produce much more milk from a given animal. To accomplish this goal the water buffalo are bred using AI with genetics imported from Italy. Zlot said that this is because Italian water buffalo produce a lot more milk than herds in the US currently do.
A common characterization is that water buffalo are very aggressive and dangerous animals. However, Zlot explained that the water buffalo in Africa are very different than the water buffalo he has at Double 8 Dairy or other water buffalo from around the world.
According to National Geographic water buffalo have been domesticated for more 5,000 years. Today, there are 168,000,000 worldwide and 70% of them are milked.
“Our animals are not behaviorally like the African cape buffalo, but they are a little bit more instinctive than a typical milk cow,” Zlot said. “They behave a little bit more like a beef cow and they are less docile and a bit more skittish. This makes them a bit more challenging to work with or handle but not dangerous.”
He said that the water buffalo’s personalities are a lot more interesting and complex than his jersey cows.
“They are very affectionate and quite intelligent, which makes them very pleasant and interesting to be around,” Zlot said. “On the tough side, they are just not as supple as a typical milk cow. They are moodier and don’t give as much milk or have as many lactation days, and they are harder to breed.”
Zlot said that he thought the hard part initially, was getting the milk from the animal, but he said he quickly learned that it’s much harder to actually make cheese from the milk. Jersey cattle are known for their high butter content of about 4.5-5%, however water buffalos have a significantly higher butterfat, which can range from 9-10%. Zlot said that it makes for a very smooth creamy texture in his products but it also poses challenges.
“It was very difficult to figure out how to make a decent mozzarella recipe,” Zlot said. “Water buffalo milk is really hard to work with because of the high fat and high protein content. It is a blessing and a curse.”
So, he said that he teamed up with a family in southern Italy to learn how to make mozzarella the traditional way.
“This Italian family sent their nephew out here to teach us,” Zlot said. “He is a third-generation mozzarella maker from this little village. We learned how to how to make mozzarella from him, so we are using a real, truly authentic Italian recipe to make the cheese.”
Today, Double 8 Dairy’s cheese maker, Francesco Ruocco, who is also from Italy, processes cheese and gelato 6 days a week.
“The process starts with pasteurization, then it depends on what we’re making,” Zlot explained. “We make Italian style gelato, mozzarella cheese and ricotta cheese. On any day we are making any or all of those products.”
The products are only available to wholesale customers, which are predominately restaurants clients in San Francisco, Berkeley, Southern Marin, Oakland, West Marin and Napa.
Although he didn’t come from an agriculture background Zlot said that he intends to be in this business venture for the long haul and that he became a Farm Bureau member because he wanted to be more involved in the agriculture community in Sonoma County.
“Farm Bureau membership provides great ways to get to know more people and to keep up to date with all of the changing policies and regulations that are affecting farmers,” Zlot said. “I think it’s important for business and important as an individual to be involved in Farm Bureau.”
Just like in the traditional dairy industry, the days can be long, and they can be tough but Zlot said that he enjoys facing challenges and thinking creatively about his business and its many opportunities to grow and succeed.
“I enjoy my job and this business and the challenges, the mental math that it requires,” Zlot said. “I like having an integrated business where we produce the milk, process the milk, deliver it, and sell a finished product. That whole vertical integration is very interesting to me. I’m really passionate about it. It’s a lot of fun and certainly really challenging.”
Zlot said that his buffalo seem to like the climate, food, and living conditions on Valley Ford Road. In addition to happy cows it seems that at least here in Sonoma County, we can boast about having happy water buffalo too.