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Mini-Cattle, Mini-Cows

 
 


Beef:
Farmers Seek A Little Less Bull
As Feed Costs Grow, Mini-cattle Are Big Hit;

By JENNIFER LEVITZ
August 12, 2008 (from the WSJ);

LOUISBURG, N.C. -- Lots of things are getting downsized in this economy -- even cattle.

A year ago, Sally and Warren Coad kept full-size cattle on their farm north of Raleigh. But then, Ms. Coad says, the price of feed "skyrocketed." So the couple sold their big cows and replaced them with mini-cows -- cattle that look just like regular cows but grow only about 3 feet tall.

As feed prices drive up the cost of keeping cows, farmers like Sally and Warren Coad say they've found a cost-efficient way of raising cattle -- raise miniature cattle. Plus, they say, smaller breeds lend themselves to young cow handlers.

They're half as big as full-size cows, and have even littler appetites: They eat only a third as much. "It's definitely economics," says Ms. Coad, gesturing across her barnyard to Snickers, Little Holly Jolly and other hip-high heifers. "These guys need less food."

Across the country, mini-cattle are catching on at farms, livestock shows and 4-H clubs, as feed costs drive up the price of keeping cows. Regular cows average about 1,300 pounds at slaughter. Mini-cows aren't only smaller at about 500 to 700 pounds. A number of researchers also say they produce proportionately more beef for the amount of grain they eat.

"There's just such enthusiasm for them," says Dana Boden, associate professor of agriculture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "It's contagious."

Some mini-cattle are naturally small, but most were bred down from full-size dairy and beef cows, starting around 1960. At first, breeders sold them as novel pets, but then the cows gained stature as legitimate livestock.

Little cows are actually closer to the way cows used to be, Ms. Boden says. When cattle first came over to the U.S. on ships from England, they weren't minis, but they were smaller than today's standard. Cattle were plumped up to meet increased food demand after World War II, and over the years, through breeding and feeding, have been super-sized. "It's been a bigger-is-better mentality for six decades," she says. "But that may not be as true as some people think."

Growing Market

Today, mini-cows are a small but growing market. A paper published in April in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Information estimated there are 3,000 miniature Herefords in the U.S., and that mini-cattle overall are increasing at a rate of 20% a year. There are at least 14,000 head of mini-cattle of other breeds in the nation, Ms. Boden says. That compares with about 100 million big cattle.

Now breeders are trying to create even smaller mini-cattle, known as "micro-minis." Ted Simpson, a 55-year-old real-estate agent in Pecatonica, Ill., is trying to breed his four waist-high cows to produce more-petite offspring that would be easier to handle as he ages. "I'd like them to be a little smaller, so they don't run me over," he says.

Some traditional ranchers look at mini-cattle and think, where's the beef? "Heck no -- that's not our cup of tea," says Mike Terrill, a Hempstead, Texas, construction manager who showed a full-size Angus at a recent Houston fair. "There's just not enough meat on 'em."

Angus breeder Margie DeGeorge says she'd be embarrassed to stick mini-cattle on her Circle D Ranch in Brackettville, Texas. "People would really laugh," she says. "They'd say, 'What is that thing and when is it gonna grow up?'"

Proponents say the diminutive cattle cause less damage to land -- and make environmentally friendly lawn mowers. "They don't tear up the grounds as much as your full-size cows," says Carolyn Peevler, 59, a farmer in Veedersburg, Ind. When she and her husband, Mark, got into breeding cows this year to produce retirement income, they decided against big cows and instead got 15 miniature Herefords. In January, they changed the name of their ranch from Windy Acres to Mini Moo Farm.

Their Herefords stand less than 40 inches tall, though they tend to grow wide. "They're just kind of chunky monkeys," Ms. Peevler says. "I love them things. I just really love them so much."

Family Appeal

Minis provide tender, petite cuts of beef and up to two gallons of milk a day -- about a sixth as much as regular dairy cows. They appeal to families who want to raise their own food, but have little farm land or experience tussling with a cow. One mini requires about a half-acre.

Though she'd never handled livestock before, Danielle Conwell, a stay-at-home mother in Boykin, S.C., is tending to four mini-cows she and her husband, a radiologist, bought over the past year to raise for milk and beef. "We prefer to know what our kids are eating," she says. "You don't get that from the grocery store."

The little cows are big on the show circuit. The North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky., held its debut mini-cow competition in November. At the giant Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in March, 396 mini-cows were shown, nearly double the number last year. In the open-beef category, miniature Herefords outnumbered full-size Herefords for the first time in the fair's 77-year history, says Joel Cowley, executive director of agricultural exhibits.

"They're a lot easier on the pocketbook," says John Breckenridge, a farmer in Glenville, Pa., who bought a mini Hereford for his daughter to show after his feed prices shot up. Even after a recent drop, the price of corn, the main ingredient in feed, is up 64% over last year. That's partly due to demand from fast-growing Asian economies and rising use of corn to make biofuel.

Fairs this month in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Iowa have added new categories for mini-cows. The Miniature Bucking Bull Breeders of America in Rocky, Okla., says its bulls can buck and kick just like big ones. It recently started a rodeo series for children. The Sanders County Fair in Plains, Mont., will hold its first mini-bucking-bull rodeo Aug. 30, with $1,000 and a ruby-studded belt buckle going to the champion.

Some mini-cows go to fairs and turn chicken. Mr. Coad says when he trucked a mini-bull to the Houston show, the animal tore out of the van and made fierce noises. Then it spotted a big bull tied up 50 feet away. "Our bull looked at him and shut right up," he says.

The North Carolina Junior Beef Round-Up held its first show for minis this year. Jackson Lewis, 13, says his entry, Dollie, became so nervous she "jumped up into my lap."

But other breeders say mini-cattle compensate for their size with attitude. "I think they know they're small so they act a little tougher," says Kwail Baskett, who raises mini-bulls in Kopperl, Texas. "They sort of have little-man syndrome -- little-bull syndrome."
 

 
 

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