When Ziegler Reservoir was excavated in 2010, 45,000-year-old bones from camels were found, indicating that the upper Snowmass Creek valley was once much warmer than it is currently.
Camels at 8,000 feet?
Odd, but true. Now, another warm-weather species roams the lower Snowmass Creek valley: water buffalo.
This summer, Carbondale rancher José Miranda is raising a herd of water buffalo on leased land at the bottom of Watson Divide, and he has other water buffalo grazing farther downvalley near Carbondale.
Miranda grew up in Venezuela, where his family had a water buffalo ranch. He came to the United States to study animal and range science at Montana State University with a plan of returning to Venezuela to take over the family ranch. After armed men raided the ranch and robbed the family of virtually everything of value, he moved his family to the United States and the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I came here and worked different ranches for seven years — working the land, pulling tractors, working with the animals — but it wasn’t fulfilling,” says Miranda.
Miranda says he struggled because he didn’t have the same connection with the cows he was working that he did on his family water buffalo ranch.
According to Miranda, cows are very different from water buffalo, and it is apparent as soon as I climb out of my car and begin to walk with him through the grass toward a small pen. While cows show few reactions to their owners or others walking up to them, water buffalo are much more aware, will follow you with their eyes and are noticeably more on edge with strangers.
“After working with cattle for a number of years, I just realized that water buffalo are smarter, and I’m extremely connected with the animals,” says Miranda. “As a farm animal, I find them at the top of the list. The quality of the milk, the ways I can handle them, they are easier to work with, there is a better bonding and a connection and they live longer.”
Miranda points out that the milk from water buffalo is healthier because it has less cholesterol, more protein and more iron than cow’s milk. And walking around the pasture, he points out the environmental benefits of water buffalo.
Buffalo benefit the alfalfa fields where they graze three different ways. One, when they graze they eat the leaves, but leave the stalk of the grass, spreading and propagating the grass seeds.
Two, their manure fertilizes the grass soil. And three, when it rains in the fields and the water buffalo walk through, their hooves work the land and create micro pockets for the seeds to spread and propagate naturally. The water buffalo also do a little weeding as they eat the flowers of the weeds. If you don’t have animals grazing, you are only extracting hay from the soil, and over time the quality of that soil will deteriorate.
No longer ‘exotic animals’
Miranda rotates his water buffalo between five pastures that are located at different elevations. In the summer, the buffalo are at higher elevations, in the winter they move down to the Carbondale area and are hearty enough to thrive in a Colorado winter as long as they have minimal shelter to keep out the wind and snow.
Miranda purchased his first two water buffalo in 2014 after the state of Colorado no longer designated water buffalo “exotic animals,” which made the cost of raising them and producing products much more expensive.
Sustainability is key to Miranda’s work with the water buffalo and at the heart of that idea is his connection with the animals. With a lean build, dark curly beard and eyes that hold a wealth of knowledge more than they let on, Miranda explains how important training the water buffalo is to the sustainability of the business.
“My priority is the health of the animals, the health of the pasture and the health of the ground,” he explains. “All of the animals are nice and gentle in a way that I never found you could accomplish with any breed of cattle.”
Miranda trains the buffalo to work with a halter, he trains them to come when he calls and he trains them so that he can handle them in an open pasture without horses, which greatly cuts down on the overall costs of raising the animals and processing the products from them.
The most well known product from water buffaloes is buffalo mozzarella cheese, a product considered much more valuable than regular mozzarella. While Miranda has only produced mozzarella for family and friends, in the next year it is his business plan to work with a local creamery and create buffalo mozzarella and other products for Aspen chefs and others. The interest and demand are already high.
The water buffalo yogurt I tasted was rich, creamy and thick, light in taste and not at all gamey. Instead, it was mild like mozzarella and will go well with both savories and sweets. It would make an awesome yogurt cucumber dip or go well with honey, dried fruit and nuts.
“Water buffalo are called a triple-purpose animal,” notes Miranda. “In non-industrialized areas of the world, they are used for work where they don’t have tractors, plowing the rice fields, pulling wagons. Their milk is considered the ‘queen of milk’ because of the quality (it’s more homogenized because it doesn’t have much fat in it) and the pure white color (it’s not yellowish because it doesn’t have beta keratin.) And their meat is leaner than beef and less gamey than bison or elk.”
After standing in the field near the herd and talking with Miranda for five or 10 minutes, you begin to notice the buffalo inching closer, eyes still fixed on the person they don’t know (which is me).
Soon, they are like big 1,800-pound dogs; affectionate, even pushy so that they get rubbed and scratched and loved the way that Miranda, his partner Erin Cuseo (who owns and operates Erin’s Acres) and their children play with them.
Erin’s Acres is a vegetable farm near Catherine’s Store in the Mid-Valley that supplies the Basalt and Carbondale farmer’s markets with garden fresh vegetables and many other locals through her CSA (community sustained agriculture) programs summer and winter.
Given the cost of property in the Roaring Fork Valley, Miranda points out the importance of his five land partners.
“This wouldn’t be happening without their interest in making it successful,” Miranda explains. “They want to see the water buffalo successful, they want to see the buffalo mozzarella produced here in this valley. And they want our relationship to continue for the health of their pastures and the health of their ground.”
Miranda softly whistles, the water buffalo stir and I think he is going to whistle them a tune. Instead, he is calling one of their dogs that is in the bushes nearby.
Erin carries their four-year-old son Wekta alongside José as they walk me back to my car.
As we walk, I study this young couple and feel inspired by their dedication to their animals, the land they work and their devotion to producing crops, animals and products that are environmentally sustainable.