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, Sally Coad says, the price of feed “skyrocketed.” So the couple sold their big cows and replaced them with minicows – cattle that look just like regular cows but grow only about 3 feet tall.
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 Coad, gesturing across her barnyard to Snickers, Little Holly Jolly and other hip-high heifers. “These guys need less food.”
Across the country, minicattle 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. Minicows 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.
Some minicattle 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, says Dana Boden, associate professor of agriculture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When cattle first came over to the U.S. from England, they weren't minis, but they were smaller than today's.
Cattle were plumped up to meet increased food demand after World War II, and over the years, through breeding and feeding, they grew.
Today, minicows 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. There are at least 14,000 head of minicattle of other breeds in the nation, Boden says. That compares with about 100 million big cattle.
Now breeders are trying to create even smaller minicattle, known as “microminis.” 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 minicattle 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 minicattle 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?'”
Though she'd never handled livestock before, Danielle Conwell, a stay-at-home mother in Boykin, S.C., is tending to four minicows 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 N.C. 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 minicattle compensate for their size with attitude. “I think they know they're small so they act a little tougher,” says Kwail Baskett, who raises minibulls in Kopperl, Texas. “They sort of have little-man syndrome – little-bull syndrome.”