IF YOU ask a Filipino to describe what a farmer looks like, don't be surprised if carabao is also being mentioned. The two are partners when it comes to farming. The carabao is the farmer's beast of burden.
Despite modernization of farming, most farmers are still using carabao. Although there is still no law that decrees the carabao to be a national symbol in the country, it is generally considered by most Filipinos to be their national animal.
"The carabao population growth pattern from 1991 to 2010 is characterized by a period of decline (1991-1994) and a period of erratic growth (1995-2010), that is, increasing from 1994 to 1998, tapering off until 2000 then increasing again from 2001 to 2007 and tapering off from then on," the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) reported.
The Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (Pcarrd) said the dramatic decline in population in 1991-1994 was attributed to low productivity, high extraction rate, and high mortality rate.
"On the average, 220,432 heads are slaughtered annually, representing 8 percent of the population," it said.
"Unless we do something now, we might wake up one day an agricultural country without a carabao to speak of," said Roy C. Alimoane, director of Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center.
In the Philippines, the carabao is put to continuous work from the age of four years up to 15 years or beyond. Some studies have shown that three females can perform the work of two male carabaos. As a draft animal, the carabao is most remarkable. It pulls plows, harrows, and carts with loads of several tons, forging through mud up to its belly.
There's more to water buffalo than just a beast of burden. W. Ross Cockrill, author of "The Husbandry and Health of the Domestic Buffalo," said that in Brazil, buffaloes are credited for almost everything good.
For one, there's carabao's milk. "Its mineral content is nearly the same as cow's milk, except that it has twice more phosphorus," said Pcarrd's Anna Marie Alo.
But, according to PCC, carabao milk is considered the "most complete food" because it contains protein, fat, lactose, vitamins and minerals, and water. Carabao's milk is richer and creamier than cow's or goat's milk due to its high percentage of milk fat which is also a good source of energy.
"The water buffalo milk is considered the finest among dairy animal milk," said executive director Libertado C. Cruz.
The carabao also offers big opportunities for the meat industry. In fact, the current demand of carabeef is due to the recent studies which show that buffaloes are the better source of quality meat than cattle.
Based on data released by the United States Department of Agriculture, carabeef has 41 percent less cholesterol, 92 percent less fat and 56 percent 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 PCC, which has now 13 centers all over the country. "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 plus factor: "Carabeef is nutrient-dense or concentrated," said Alo. "It does not shrink in cooling and only a little of it is needed to satisfy a person. This quality makes it a suitable ingredient in locally produced corned beef and comminuted products such as “longanisa,” hotdogs, bologna, and chorizos."
Carabao is equally important for its hide. In the Philippines, people consume a lot of "chicharon" made of carabao hide, "kare-kare," which is partly skin of the animal, and a favorite "pulutan,: softened thin slices of hide spiced heavily with ginger, onion and red pepper.
Carabao manure is also of 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.
"The carabao and Philippine agriculture will remain synonymous for many years to come," the PCC said. "This is because a large portion of our agriculture continues to be unirrigated. Moreover, land ownership of one hectare and below has significantly increased. This could be due to decreasing land area against the increasing number of farming families in the rural areas."
"Unless the industrial sector absorbs this available labor, they will remain dependent on the produce of their decreasing size of land. Hence, the integration of crops and livestock is the best way to survive. Carabao is therefore indispensable in this scenario," the PCC added.