Corey Jones, a third-generation dairy farmer, is breaking new ground as a first-generation buffalo farmer.

He established the South Australian Buffalo Company in 2014 at his family’s property in Mypolonga, and now has a herd of 400 buffalo and is selling his milk to six cheesemakers around Australia.

Corey’s grandfather bought the property in the early fifties and established a dairy farm. His dad took over the farm in the early eighties, and Corey grew up in the dairy.

“I’ve always loved everything about cows. I was milking our 60 cows on my own before school and after school. I grew up with it and I thought that all I was going to do was milk cows,” he said.

But then in the early 2000s, the Millennium Drought hit.

“Mum and Dad sat me down and said they were going to sell the cows and stop milking. We thought we’d never see the river full again. We couldn’t irrigate the pastures and they were pretty bad times,” Corey said.

“I was about 13 years old, and we loaded all the cows into trucks and off they went. I was shattered. I don’t cry very often, but I definitely broke down that day.”

Corey worked for other local dairy farmers and goat farmer, Anders Oksbjerg, during his teenage years. He made the move to Adelaide when he was 17 following a dream to play professional football. He played footy for Sturt and started an apprenticeship as a carpenter.

“I gave up on the dream of being a farmer. But Dad, to his credit, never sold the land or pulled a thing out of the dairy. And he didn’t sell his water license,” Corey said.

“I lived in Adelaide for five years, played some SANFL footy, finished my apprenticeship, and met my wife, Mollie. But I got bored quickly with building houses. I remember living in Adelaide, and working in Victor Harbor and driving past a few dairies on my way, and it made me think, why can’t I make a living off the land here? Like Papa and Dad did.”

The call of the land was strong, and Corey contacted David Altman, a well-known dairy farmer in the Murraylands region, to ask for a job.

“It all fell into place – he had a job and a house I could move in to. I said to Mollie, I want to move home, can we make this work? And thankfully she said yes.”

Working with David opened Corey’s eyes to the state of the industry. Milk prices were low, and industry conditions were difficult. It made him question his future in dairy farming.

“I talked with my old boss at the goat farm, Anders Oksbjerg, and he had a Job for me if I wanted to make the switch,” Corey said.

“I started milking goats again, looking at the possibility of milking goats on our farm. I spoke with Kris Lloyd at Woodside Cheese Wrights, who I used to see regularly when I was delivering the goat milk, but she said there wasn’t a lot of demand for more goat milk. But Kris was interested in buffalo milk for cheese, and that really took my interest.”

After a bit of Googling, Corey took delivery of his first load of 28 buffaloes in 2014.

“It was slow to start with and I realised I’d bought the wrong animals,” he said. “It was hard during the first 18 months, milking them once a day, delivering my milk in buckets to Woodside Cheese Wrights. But I kept at it and eventually I was approached by a cheesemaker in Melbourne who wanted buffalo milk.

“I realised that the Northern Territory Government had a research farm up new Darwin, and they were breeding Riverine Water Buffalo. I brought three truckloads down over a few years.”

Once Corey had the right breed of animals, he began to see the potential.

“I started milking 40 or 50 buffalo, twice a day,” he said. “Then another cheesemaker came on board and then fast forward to 2023, and we supply six different cheesemakers – we have two in Sydney, two in Melbourne, and La Vera and Woodside Cheese Wrights here in Adelaide.”

Corey now has a herd of 400 buffalo – 300 females and 100 steers. He milks 100 to 150 animals twice a day.

Buffalo milk is profitable, averaging $3 to $3.60 a litre, but milk volumes are lower than cow milk – Corey’s buffaloes average 2,500 litres in a 270-day lactation.

“However, their fat and protein averages are 8% fat and 5% protein, which is perfect for buffalo mozzarella and blue cheese. Kris Lloyd does an amazing feta and a curd and all sorts of soft cheeses with buffalo milk,” Corey said.

Buffalo milk is pure white in colour and there’s not a discernible difference in taste between cow milk and buffalo milk. “It’s a bit heavier and creamier but you don’t get a ‘buffalo’ taste,” Corey said.

“The animals themselves are a lot trickier to handle than a dairy cow, so it’s a lot slower to milk them. They often step on cups and they’re a lot slower at letting their milk down.

“And there’s more of a pecking order with buffalo, so you’ve got to get the herd right. We run two herds – an older herd and a younger herd – so that the first and second time calvers can be in their own group and not have to worry about the old ones picking on them.”

In terms of hygiene, Corey runs his system as he would a cow dairy in terms of cleaning and animal health, including antibiotic treatments.

“We take great pride in our dairy hygiene and cleanliness,” Corey said. “We do have to keep on top of the machine cleanliness due to the higher fat content of the milk.”

Corey imports all buffalo semen from Italy, which is improving his herd genetics, and his average milk quantity is slowly creeping up.

“We’ve got buffalo now that can do 4,000 to 5,000 litres per lactation. We just need more of them!” Corey said.

“Last year we had 150 or 160 calves, so we have 60 or 70 replacement heifers a year. So, we’re getting there. But I don’t intend on getting too big. I think milking up to 200 buffalo would be my maximum number.

“I still want to have a life. My wife Mollie and I have three kids – Nina who’s four, Rupert two and a new baby called Ned who was born in September. They keep me pretty busy.

“I’ve got Mum and another full-time worker to help me manage the farm, plus a couple of casual milkers, and Dad also helps out with farm work and maintenance, so the size of the farm is about right for this team.”

The 2022 flood

Corey’s farm was virtually submerged by water during the Murray River flood of 2022/23, and he was forced to move his herd to Wall Flat.

“Through winter last year, I was starting to keep a close eye on the river interstate because water storages were full, and they were getting a lot of rain. With the outlook of La Nina, it was a recipe for disaster,” he said.

“In about October, I said to Mum and Dad, we’re going to have to move. By November it was clear to me we had to move. People started to offer help, offering their paddocks for my buffalo, but I had to think about how I could keep this going milking-wise.

“I couldn’t just throw them up on the higher land and not worry about milking. Milking was going well, and the milk demand was high. The feed was growing amazingly on the river flats, it was the best spring I’ve ever had.

“I made a promise to myself to get out of here and get settled before Christmas so we could enjoy Christmas.”

Corey met with Les and Daniel Martin at Wall Flat, who had a disused dairy that was on high enough land to be safe from the flood.

“The dairy had only shut down three years prior, so everything was still in the dairy. It was just a matter of putting in new rubber wear and refrigeration, and repairing and cleaning and it was ready to go,” Corey said.

“In early December we moved the herd to Wall Flat over three days. We were milking 120 buffalo at that stage, so we did three days of moving 40 each day around the milking. I have a truck and I borrowed David Altman’s truck as well, so we could load calmly and got them over to Wool Flat.”

Corey said trying to train the buffalo to milk in the new dairy was an unexpected challenge.

“I underestimated how hard it would be. The animals were happy to get transported in the truck and happy to go out and eat the grass. But when it came to getting them into the new dairy – they just didn’t want to do it,” he said.

“Over four or five days they chilled out a bit and started eating their grain, and the milking picked back up.”

It was a stressful time for Corey and his family, settling into a new dairy and waiting for the riverbank to break.

“It was hard, especially in the early days, to come home to a perfectly normal farm, with beautiful paddocks full of feed. It was hard mentally because I was wondering whether I was doing it all for nothing,” Corey said.

“But on Boxing Day night, my neighbour gave me a call and said the riverbanks have let go. And in a way it was a relief because it was done and we were prepared.”

That night Corey still had 100 acres of hay rolled up on his flats, ready to be bailed.

“So a few friends come down Boxing Day night and we went bailing and got it all off the flats at about 1am. At 12pm the next day, the water came across the farm,” Corey said.

“Then within three days, 11 kilometres of Mypolonga’s irrigation flats filled up to river level. My dairy and my big machinery shed were just above the water line. If the water had risen another half a metre, it would have been in the dairy.

“All 350 acres of our farm pastures were under water, and our dairy was marooned on an island.”

Corey counts himself lucky that the dairy and his large sheds weren’t damaged. But the clean-up following the flood was long and slow.

“We had a lot of water just sitting here and we couldn’t start pumping the water out until the bank was repaired enough to stop the river coming back in,” Corey said.

“All the flats were swamps and there was a fair bit of clean-up to do and fences to fix. A few fences were pulled out and a few big trees fell.

“I have since re-seeded the whole farm and we’ve got seed and grass growing again now. We moved the buffalo home at the end of August. So, from 10 December 2022 until end of August 2023 we were at the other dairy.”

Corey said the help from other farmers and his community were instrumental in his business surviving the flood.

“People offered their paddocks, barns and trucks, and the Martin family offered us their dairy. It was amazing,” Corey said. “That support definitely helped me through the toughest time of my farming life.”

Nina, Mollie, Ned, Corey and Rupert Jones, from the South Australian Buffalo Company. Image by Dean Martin Photography, Newspix.