Joshua Mendoza

Published: May 1, 2024

NUEVA ECIJA, Philippines — After working as a factory worker for nine years in South Korea, Danilo Peralta, a resident of Barangay Porais in San Jose City, decided in 2017 to stay permanently in the Philippines to focus on his dairy farm as a “carapreneur.”

Peralta, 41, owns 10 water buffaloes, and three of them produce milk that can be sold at P80 per liter. In 2022, his carabaos were able to produce 5,520 kilograms of milk, which amounted to P432,000.

Through their dairy cooperative, he and the members supply milk to Milka Krem, a dairy plant that develops buffalo milk into various products, and to other businesses from neighboring towns who also use carabao’s milk as an ingredient for their products. 

Carabao dairy farming is a vital source of income for many Filipinos, but rising temperatures due to climate change and the El Niño phenomenon threaten the well-being and productivity of the Philippines’ national animal. 

Noticeable stress

Danilo Peralta checks on his carabaos as heat intensifies mid-afternoon. (Joshua Mendoza)

Peralta and his wife Kattleya observed that scorching heat affects the carabaos’ reproductive processes and milk production. The Philippines has been grappling with exceptionally hot weather, prompting school closures and triggering health warnings.

“Usually, we can get around 7 liters of milk per carabao, but now we could only get 4 liters,” Kattleya, 47, said in Filipino.

In some cases, heat stress among carabaos could lead to heat stroke and death. 

“They are stressed. Their milk is limited. If there’s any, it’s not of good quality. And they seem a bit sluggish… at night, when it’s hot and there’s no breeze, they can’t sleep,” Kattleya said. 

During cool weather, carabaos eat quickly, act livelier, and seem more comfortable. But in the dry season, they seek water to lie down in and cool off. 

The ongoing El Niño phenomenon also affects the grasslands in their area, a main food source for their carabaos. Danilo said it used to take one day to water their Napier grass, but now it takes two due to low water pump output.

The pair emphasized that carabaos need to consume at least 10% of their body weight in food daily. For instance, an adult carabao weighing around 400 kilograms should eat at least 40 kilograms. If they cannot meet this requirement, it will be hard for them to produce milk.

Heat stress and reproduction

Carabaos wait for their bath time before roaming for grazing. (Joshua Mendoza)

Danilo, who also works as a village-based artificial insemination technician, said that carabaos are struggling to conceive in this increasingly warm weather. He even witnessed a case where a female carabao, often referred to as a cow, failed to conceive even after three attempts at artificial insemination. 

Dr. Excel Rio Maylem, a Senior Science Research Specialist under the Reproduction and Physiology Section of the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC), confirmed that heat stress among carabaos disrupts many reproductive processes, leading to lower pregnancy rates. 

She noted that expression of hormones is poor, and heat stress could also impair the egg and the sperm quality.

Aside from reproduction, these animals also tend to eat less because their bodies heat up when fed too much. This leads to decreased feed intake and potential weight loss. 

When they lose weight, it becomes harder for them to conceive, ultimately affecting their milk productivity. 

“So, it leads to a domino effect. Alternatively, they might still have some milk but in lesser quantity or quality,” Dr. Maylem said.

According to PCC’s Genetic Improvement Program, cows, or female carabaos, bred during the summer months (March to August) produced an average of 5.1 kg of milk per day, while those bred during the breeding season (September to February) produced 5.3 kg of milk per day from 2016 to 2020.

Milk production is lower when the peak of lactation occurs during the summer months compared to cooler months.

In the 2020 to 2021 period, milk production was highest in January at 7.9 kg per day, but dropped to only around 3.8 kg per day from July to September. This suggests that calving, or the process of cow giving birth to a baby, and heat exposure during March to May may have contributed to the lowest milk production later in the year. 

Finding heat-resistant carabaos

Dr. Excel Rio Maylem checks a carabao during a field activity assessing heat stress and behavioral activities of carabaos. (Excel Rio Maylem)

Currently, Dr. Maylem is working on a climate-smart water buffalo production program funded by PCC, Department of Agriculture-Biotech Office, and Bureau of Agricultural Research. 

A key component of the program is identifying thermotolerance genes in water buffaloes using a probe-based genotyping technique. It is PCC’s first project related to the effects of heat stress and climate change on carabaos.

The project aims to determine how thermotolerance genes could possibly affect their productivity. Animals with these genes are likely to withstand the harmful effects of heat stress. 

“So that’s what we want to do, find thermotolerance genes in imported breeds and our native breeds. Maybe we can crossbreed them. Productivity is higher in imported breeds, but thermotolerance is higher in native ones. So if we crossbreed them, we could get the best of both worlds,” Maylem explained. 

Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority showed the Philippines has around 2.74 million carabaos as of September 2023, a slight decrease from 2.79 million the year before. Most carabaos are raised on small farms, with only 0.7% coming from semi-commercial and commercial farms. 

Bicol region recorded the highest carabao population with 324,220 heads, followed by Western Visayas and Central Luzon with 251,570 and 250,640 heads, respectively.

Easing the heat

Danilo follows the experts’ advice, bathing his carabaos twice daily: before milking in the morning and around 4 p.m. before they graze.

Aside from frequent bathing, Maylem suggested feeding them food that isn’t too hot on their body. 

Maylem also mentioned that PCC is currently working on developing a climate-smart hydro-environment for water buffaloes. She described it as a barn equipped with sprinklers, fans, and a tiny swimming pool to help alleviate heat stress.

“PCC, on the other hand, is very helpful to farmers. They provide lectures and webinars to educate farmers on how to combat heat stress, and how to recognize when an animal is experiencing heat stress,” she added.