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Intensive production of African savanna buffaloes

13 May 2015

www.leopard.tvIntensive production of disease-free African savanna buffaloes has made a marked conservation contribution to re-establish such buffaloes outside declared disease areas, especially outside areas where tuberculosis, corridor and foot-and-mouth disease are prevalent. The sale and re-establishment of disease-free buffaloes has also become lucrative. The southern African subspecies Syncerus caffer caffer is also the largest of the known subspecies of buffalo in Africa.

The African savanna buffalo is the largest living member of the family Bovidae. Some producers are at present buying and selling buffaloes at exorbitant prices which are especially being paid for so-called East African buffaloes, some of which have long, almost straight horns but lack the typical boss and recurved horns of the typical southern African buffalo. However, analyses show no genetic difference between the buffaloes of East and southern Africa, and any morphological differences that may be present are due to environmental conditions. Upon being established in the savannas of southern Africa, progeny of such buffaloes are likely to revert to the typical southern African form with time. Moreover, the quality of the food has a major influence on horn growth in a buffalo and other wildlife.

When evaluating the physical attributes of an African savanna buffalo, there is a definite correlation between its thoracic girth and body weight. This relationship can be described by the following equations:

Bulls: Body mass in kg = 84.36 - 2.346X + 0.2338X2
Cows: Body mass in kg = 109.76 + 0.774X + 0.01131X2

Where X = the thoracic girth in cm.

When starting a breeding herd, proper age determination is important and this can best be done on the basis of the dentition. The deciduous tooth set in an African savanna buffalo consists of four lower incisors, no upper incisors, no canine teeth and three premolar teeth on either side of the lower and upper dental arches. The teeth erupt from ages of one week to nine months. The first permanent teeth to appear are the lower incisors which erupt at an age of two years, to be followed at an age of three years by the second lower incisors and the third ones at an age of 4.5 years. The full permanent tooth complement consists of four lower incisors, no upper incisors, no canines, three upper and lower premolars and three upper and lower molars on each side. Considerable wear of the incisor teeth occurs from an age of ten years.


The horns appear as buds at an age of three months and the horns start to curve at an age of 30 months. The boss starts to thicken at an age of three to four years and the typical shape in an adult is reached at an age of four to five years when the horn tips also start to sweep backwards. The hairy boss develops at an age of five to six years and in bulls that are older than seven years the two halves merge while the horn tips start to wear away. The ideal trophy size is a bull of seven years, which is also the prime age for a breeding bull.

The dressed carcass of an adult buffalo bull yields a mean of 380 kg of meat,   the hide forms 9.9 per cent of the live weight, while the hindquarter contributes a mean of 41.5 per cent to the edible meat of the carcass.

Sexual maturity is related to body weight and in a cow is reached around an age of 3.5 years and in a bull at one of 2.5 years. Under free-ranging conditions, however, social behaviour will only allow the bulls to breed when they are seven years old, and they are replaced by younger bulls at the age of nine to ten years. Under intensive production the bulls may be used to breed when they are four to five years old. Ovulation occurs during the rainy season, the pregnancy rate is around 75 per cent and the gestation period is 343 days. When a calf is removed from the cow within the first three days after birth, oestrus will occur within five weeks. If the calf is allowed to suckle for a few months, oestrus will occur within three to five months after giving birth. The calf is weaned at an age of five to seven months.

Buffalo milk contains 6 per cent protein, 5 per cent carbohydrates and 8 per cent fat. The daily food intake of a buffalo is 2.5 tot 3 per cent of its body weight and poor physical condition occurs with low quality food. For large herds, the herd structure should be maintained but it is common for the sex ratio to become skewed when too many bulls are hunted or sold alive. This will lead to low production levels.

The intensive production of the African savanna buffalo is purely an economic exercise. Buying expensive buffaloes with long horns that originate from East Africa with the aim of marketing their offspring is often a waste of money because the habitat and food resources will cause the progeny to adapt to local conditions with time. For intensive production, the important considerations are the provision of adequate shade, food, water and enough space for exercise. Disease-free buffaloes can only be bred in locations that are inside the veterinary red line because the parental stock is not allowed to be moved to areas where controlled diseases do not occur. Trophy animals may be bred inside the veterinary red line but only buffalo progeny that are disease-free can be used to build up disease-free buffalo herds outside the veterinary red line.

The intensive production of disease-free buffaloes is discussed in detail in the source below. The breeding pen for buffalo cows should have a solid roof for shade and a cement floor that can be cleaned daily. Cleaned off urine and dung should be channelled into an oxidation dam. Holding pens should provide a minimum of 20 m2 of floor space and feeding troughs 1 m of linear space per buffalo. An outside area with a cement floor is required to expose the buffaloes to sufficient sunlight, and an exercise camp of 2 to 3 ha per herd is essential.

The calves can be raised in sheds that are divided into smaller paddocks of 5 x 10 m by using clamped steel divides. Each such paddock can house a Jersey cow that can be used as a surrogate mother to two ot three calves. A crush is required to be able to handle such the cows and calves. The non-breeding buffaloes can be held in at least two metal pens that are connected with a sliding gate that can be closed from outside and measure 5 m wide x 15 m long with sides that are 2 m high. A general guideline is to have 2 m2 of floor space per 50 kg of body weight.

When selecting breeding stock it is advisable to buy from reputable buffalo breeders only. In a natural population, only 8 per cent of the mature, but not old, buffalo bulls will have horns of trophy quality. Only 20 per cent of the bulls will have a good temperament and such bulls are vital in intensive breeding systems. The bulls should be tested for semen quality by electro-ejaculation. General guidelines are a scrotal circumference of more than 400 mm, semen with a whitish colour and milky consistency, a count of more than 400 x 106 sperm per ml and more than 80 per cent morphologically normal sperm. For breeding cows the only two criteria are that they must be certified to be free of brucellosis and tuberculosis and that they must be highly fertile.


The calves are left with their mothers for at least the first 48 hours. They are then micro-chipped and ear-tagged and kept in groups of five to eight calves of the same age at a ratio of two to three calves per Jersey cow. The calves can feed with the surrogate cows on lucerne and be fed concentrates within a month of birth. They are dipped weekly against brown ear ticks Rhipicephalus appendiculatus and are tested repeatedly for diseases by following a strict regime as is explained in the source below.

Feeding buffaloes can be done with good quality hay consisting of weeping love grass Eragrostis curvula and buffalo grass Cenchrus ciliaris, or with lucerne. To prevent urea poisoning, a mineral lick with ureum should be provided before a salt hunger develops. Licks should be protected against rain and the feeding containers must allow water to drain. Licks should contain 0.3 to 0.4 per cent calcium, 0.25 to 0.30 percent phosphate and vitamin A. Feeding troughs should be under cover on a non-slip surface. The water and food supply must be separated and mouldy lucerne should never be fed. Any hay should come from areas that are free from brown ear ticks to prevent the transmission of corridor disease.

The African savanna buffalo will always remain a good investment because of the demand from trophy hunters and they are difficult to steal. However, it is essential that the myth of the value of some individual exotic ecotypes not mislead the wildlife producers. Exorbitant prices for individual animals distort the value of buffaloes and create unwarranted expectations that usually cannot be experienced by all the wildlife producers.



Du Toit, J G 2005. The African savanna buffalo. In: J du P Bothma & N van Rooyen (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pp 78 - 105.


article by Prof J du P Bothma


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