New breeds of pint-sized heifers and bulls are making it easier for farmers with limited space to raise cattle for milk, meat or just fun.
On Bill Bryan's 50-acre spread on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he has sold seven calves this year.
"We've sold the vast majority of our calves to people who have these little three- to five-acre farmettes, and they'll fence in an acre, buy a calf and more or less keep 'em for pets," Bryan said. Two mini cattle calves stood nearby, munching on grass in a small fenced-in area, skittering away if visitors got too close.
Bryan is among a group of pioneering breeders raising miniature cattle that can be as little as a third of the size of the larger breeds.
The reasons are many, they say. You don't need the back 40 acres to raise these breeds; the back four will do. Mini cattle eat about a third as much as a full-sized steer, are less destructive to pasture land and fencing, and are easier to handle.
"I'm 56 years old, and you want to know something? I can handle them better," Bryan said, recounting a struggle the winter before with a full-size steer who got its horns caught in a hay rack.
Full miniature cattle are defined as those below 42 inches at the hip when fully grown, while mid-size miniatures are up to 48 inches.
Although each animal may be smaller, more meat can be produced overall from each acre, breeders say. And the smaller size of each animal also has its benefits.
Some people look to save money by buying an entire cow or a side of beef, but it can be difficult to store the hundreds of pounds of meat from a 1,200-to-1,500-pound steer, of which about 40% makes it to the freezer.
Miniature cattle, which often are 500 to 700 pounds, provide enough meat to last six months for a family of four. That's just about the freezer shelf life of beef, Bryan said. And the meat tastes the same, depending on how the cattle have been raised and fed.
Another factor driving the popularity is that most people don't have enough land for full-sized cattle, which need five acres for two cattle, compared with an acre for a pair of miniature cattle.
"The years where we had people with three, four, five hundred acres are gone," said Richard H. Gradwohl, who has developed a number of small breeds at his Happy Mountain Miniature Cattle Farm in Covington, Wash. "If you have five acres with miniature cattle the concentration is about two per acre, so you can raise 10 miniature cattle on five acres quite well."
Those 10 mini cows will provide about 6,000 pounds on the hoof, compared with as much as 3,000 pounds that could come from two full-size cattle, Gradwohl said.
"That's true because of the feed efficiency of the animals, and their hoofs are smaller so they won't tear up the pasture," which helps maintain the grass they feed on, he said.
Cattle that can be raised easier on grass only is also an increasingly desirable trait because grass-fed beef is said to contain higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, breeders say.
However, finding growers who raise miniature cattle for beef is still fairly difficult because of the rarity of the breeds and the fact most are raised as pets.