Carabao: The Beast of Burden
By Henrylito D. Tacio
Madrid Agribusiness Digest
After the tamaraw, what animal is most likely to make it to the country’s threatened list?
The carabao, that’s what. The Filipino’s beast of burden, forced out from the farm by mechanized farming, is now being pushed to extinction. Although there are no current records available from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, the carabao’s total population is steadily declining..
“Unless we do something now, we might wake up one day an agricultural country without carabao to speak of,” warns a farming expert.
The Philippine carabao is one of the many breeds of the water buffalo, sometimes known as an “Asian animal” since the region is home to some 95 percent of the world’s stock. The buffalo was first domesticated about 4,500 years ago, in China or the Indus Valley – perhaps at the same time – and “buffalo culture” spread gradually throughout Asia.
There are two types of water buffaloes: The river type and the swamp type. The river type is exemplified by the Indian and sub-continent breeds. It considered under the dairy category because it possesses high genetic capacity for milk production.
On the other hand, the swamp type – to which the Philippine carabao belongs – is distinguished by its preference for swamps or marshlands. This type of buffalo is primarily utilized for farm work.
About 98 percent of the total available agricultural power in Asia is derived from animals, mostly from the water buffalo. In the Philippines, the carabao is put to continuous work from the age of four years up to 15 years or beyond.
As a draft animal, the water buffalo is most remarkable. It pulls plows, harrows, and carts with loads of several tons, forging through mud up to its belly. Among the buffalo’s advantages over cattle is its greater resistance to afflictions of the feet and legs in the damp conditions common paddy farming. Buffaloes may also be more resistant to tropical diseases.
The carabao is also good source of milk. Animal scientists claim a “caracow” or a crossbreed carabao and cow, with nursing calf can produce 300 to 380 kilograms of milk during a lactation period of about 180 days.
According to former agriculture secretary Roberto S. Sebastian, carabao milk is more nutritious than cattle and goat milk.
“Carabao milk contains five percent proteins, versus about 3.5 percent protein in cow and goat milk,” the Laguna-based Dairy Training and Research Institute agrees.
In comparison, the carabeef is more nutritious than cattle beef. Based on data released by the United State Department of Agriculture, carabeef has 41% less cholesterol, 92% less fat and 56% fewer calories than beef. Recent studies regarding the chemical composition of carabeef show that fresh carabeef obtained higher crude protein than pork and beef.
“Ground carabeef has an exquisite flavor and texture,” said a fact sheet disseminated by the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC). “Buffalo meat is tender. It has little or no marbling or outside fat, so only a small amount of juice is lost when it is cooked.”
Another good thing about carabeef: the meat is produced with fewer hormones or antibiotics.
“Carabao are not raised in mass and are not fed in feedlot such as that done in cattle. Carabaos are raised mainly out of nature’s fodder and grain,” explains the PCC.
Carabao is equally important for its hide. Filipinos consume a lot of “chicharon” made of carabao hide, “kare-kare,” which is partly skin of the animal, and a favorite “pulutan,” or softened thin slices of hide spiced heavily with ginger, onion and red pepper.
The animal’s manure also has economic importance. It’s a good organic fertilizer, containing 18.5 percent nitrogen, 43.7 percent phosphoric acid, and 9.6 percent potash. It’s also a good source of fuel either as dried dung, or in generating biogas or methane. When mixed with clay, the dung serves as building material or as plaster on the ground where “palay” is threshed.
W. Ross Cockrill, author of “The Husbandry and Health of the Domestic Buffalo,” said that in Brazil, buffaloes are credited for almost everything good. He narrated the story of an Amazonian cowboy, well into his 70s, who had 20 children. Despite a vigorous life, the aging gentlemen looked the picture of health.
Despite its importance in agricultural production, carabaos are fast disappearing. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, many farmers are selling their carabaos to be able to buy power tillers, which they believe are easier to maintain than the animal. Another reason is disease, particularly hemorrhagic septicemia, a highly-fatal bacterial disease that is transmitted through infected feeds and water.
Other causes cited by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) include: poor reproductive capacity (carabaos are late-maturing animals with a long gestation period and calving intervals), low productivity (because of poor feeding and management), and high mortality (particularly true among caracalves, due to high incidence of infectious and heavy parasitic diseases and poor management practices).
Aware of the production problems in the past, PCARRD prioritized a national carabeef commodity in 1975 to accelerate research and development activities on carabao. Three years later, it pushed for the approval of the project to strengthen the Philippine Carabao Research and Development Center (PCRDC). PCARRD coordinated the project, which was financially supported by United Nations Development Program and Food and Agriculture Organization (UMDP/FAO), until 1991.
The improvement of the native carabao was carried out through artificial insemination and estrus synchronization. From a draft animal, the new breed of carabaos (a crossbreed) was developed. This new breed has are capable of giving 3-4 times more milk than the native carabao. More importantly, it grows 40 percent faster and can calve at three years of age.
In 1992, the carabao finally acquired the respect it deserves when the Philippine Carabao Act was enacted. Republic Act No. 7307, which was authored by then-senator Joseph Estarda, was implemented in 1993. As an offshoot of the Carabao Development Program, the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) was created. An attached agency of the Department of Agriculture, it is mandated to “conserve, propagate and promote the carabao as a source of draft animal power, meat, milk and hide, to benefit the rural farmers.”
One of PCC’s earlier programs was crossbreeding native carabaos with Murrah Buffaloes (a species of the dairy type from India, Bulgaria, and some countries of North and Latin America). Today, at PCC, there are carabaos that are bigger, heavier, taller, and blacker than the pure native. A few hundreds are in the center, while some 1000 are on loan to farmers in the Central Luzon region. The PCC inventory classifies the animals as dry cow, lactating, pregnant, calves, heifers, or bulls.
PCC Project Development Officer Nur Baltazar says each carabao yields as average five liters of milk a days, and an extreme of 12 liters (the highest registered in the region). But he adds, they have a potential yield of 20 liters, from a carabao the PCC in the University of the Philippines in Los Baños loaned to the Batangas Dairy Cooperative in Lipa City.
This is good news, indeed.
“Ninety-nine percent of our milk consumption comes from importation,” the PCC says. “This is one of the major reasons why we need to develop the local capability. We have been subsiding the foreign farmers to produce milk for us. If we can only provide our farmers with a more productive and competitive dairy production system, then the amount we are spending for imports would be earned by them instead of the foreign farmers.”
Another good news: In South American countries like Argentina, Brazil, Columbia and Venezuela, the demand for carabeef is growing. This has resulted in the astounding growth of 14-18 percent in the carabao population in these countries. In the United States, the price of carabeef has doubled in recent years.
Currently, the PCC has13 regional centers: five in Luzon, and four each in Visayas and Mindanao. Among the services they provide include artificial insemination, bull loan, production of quality breeding animals and germplasm, technical assistance, training, and carabao-based enterprise development.
The carabao is considered a national symbol of the Philippines. In fact, a national daily newspaper is using the carabao as its mascot. Also in May, a festival is observed in honor of this animal. At the Carabao Festival, the animals are washed and decorated with ribbons and flowers. After the carabao race, the animals are paraded in front of the local church, where they are made to kneel down to be blessed.
However, the carabao best be honored if we can increase their number. Fortunately, the government has already taken the first steps.