Walking through their lowing herd of several hundred cattle, Ali and Kenny Petersen were like two Gullivers on a Lilliputian roundup.
The half-sized cows barely reached Kenny’s waist. The ranch’s border collie stared eye-to-eye with wandering calves.
“Aren’t they sweet?” asked Ali, 52, shooing Half-Pint, Buttercup and a dozen other cattle across a holding pen. “They’re my babies, every little one of them.”
The Petersens once raised normal-sized bovines on this stretch of Nebraska’s rolling eastern grasslands, but with skyrocketing feed costs, the couple decided to downsize.
They bought minicows -- compact cattle with stocky bodies, smaller frames and relatively tiny appetites.
Their miniature Herefords consume about half that of a full-sized cow yet produce 50% to 75% of the rib-eyes and fillets, according to researchers and budget-conscious farmers.
“We get more sirloin and less soup bone,” Ali said. “People used to look at them and laugh. Now, they want to own them.”
In the last few years, ranchers across the country have been snapping up mini Hereford and Angus calves that fit in a person’s lap. Farmers who raise mini Jerseys brag how each animal provides 2 to 3 gallons of milk a day, though they complain about having to crouch down on their knees to reach the udders.
“Granny always said I prayed for my milk,” said Tim O’Donnell, 53, who milks his 15 miniature Jerseys twice a day on his farm in Altamont, Ill.
Minicows are not genetically engineered to be tiny, and they’re not dwarfs. They are drawn from original breeds brought to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800s that were smaller than today’s bovine giants, said Ron Lemenager, professor of animal science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
The Petersens’ mini Herefords, with their white faces and rounded auburn-hued bodies, weigh in at a dainty 500 to 700 pounds, compared with 1,300 pounds or more for their heftier brethren.
Big cows emerged as a product of the 1950s and ‘60s, when farmers were focused on getting more meat and didn’t fret as much about the efficient use of animal feed or grasslands.
“Feed prices were relatively cheap, and grazing lands were accessible,” Lemenager said. “The plan was to get more meat per animal. But it went way too far. The animals got too big and eat so much.”
Today, there’s little room for inefficiency on a modern farm, and that has led some farmers to consider minicows.
It hasn’t been an easy transition. When the Petersens bought their first dozen animals in the mid-1990s, friends told them they’d lost their minds. Some ranchers said they’d have trouble selling consumers on their mini-steaks. Even their youngest daughter was reluctant to show them at 4-H livestock contests when she was younger.
“I got tired of people sneering and hearing the jokes,” said Kristie Petersen, now 23.
But gradually, a mini-boom in minicows took hold.
Today, there are more than 300 miniature-Hereford breeders in the U.S., up from fewer than two dozen in 2000. And there are about 20,000 minicows, compared with fewer than 5,000 a decade ago, according to the International Miniature Cattle Breeds Registry.
Still, the animals represent a minor portion of the 94.5 million head of cattle in the U.S. this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Here in Tekamah, a farming village of 1,900 about 40 miles north of Omaha, the Petersens’ phone steadily rings with tour requests and orders for live animals. The couple have sold animals from the farm’s 300-head herd to cattlemen from Indiana, a pair of bull riders in Texas and a retired couple moving to Missouri.
John Dunham came shopping recently for his 80-year-old father, who raises livestock in South Dakota’s Black Hills. His dad’s farm has been struggling to stay profitable.
“I’m thinking about sneaking a few of them onto the farm,” said Dunham, 50. “Maybe he’ll think his eyes are playing tricks on him.”
The minicows have been a perfect fit with another trend in farm efficiency -- the move to ranchettes, smaller operations run by families or small groups of workers. The number of smaller farms has boomed in recent years, growing to nearly 700,000 in 2007 from 580,000 in 2002, according to the latest census by the Department of Agriculture.
“When you have a back four, instead of a back 40 [acres], you need to think small,” said Carolyn Peevler, 60, who runs the Mini Moo Farm in Veedersburg, Ind.
She and her husband, Mark, used to raise goats on their 59-acre farm, but they switched to minicows last year because “we figured they’d be easier to handle as we got older.”
They soon realized they had more field than cattle; one animal needed less than an acre for grazing. Because the minicows could be grass fed, the couple were spending at least half the amount on feed than they would have on regular-sized animals. The minicows also reached their mature weight faster, so they could be sold for meat sooner.
The Peevlers have built their herd up to 16. One steer provides enough beef to fill the couple’s freezer for a year. Carolyn Peevler also considers them “green” red meat: They cause less wear and tear on her pasture land and fences and, she said with a laugh, they emit less methane gas.
“I’m 5-foot-2, and a regular cow is just too much animal for me,” Peevler said. “Besides, these are adorable.”
Their size does have some drawbacks for farmers, who’ve learned they must also scale down their operations.
Richard Gradwohl, a minicow farmer in Kent, Wash., installed partitions in his 24-foot-long trailer to prevent the animals from getting jostled too much. He also got feed troughs and water tanks that sat a foot off the ground because the old ones were too tall. Even his fencing had to be modified.
“You’d be surprised how small a space they can get under,” said Gradwohl, who has written a beginner’s guide for minicow owners.
Martha Mintun and her partner, Fred Joosse, switched to a female veterinarian after they found that the hands of male vets were too large to examine pregnant minicows.
They also had a tough time finding collars for ID tags small enough to stay put on their calves. So the owners of the Sonoma Little Cattle Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif., went to a pet store and bought dog collars. “It wasn’t until later that we realized they had tiny hamburger and hot dog designs on them,” Mintun said.
But no big adjustments have been necessary for student 4-H groups, which have embraced the smaller breeds because they are cheaper to raise and easier to handle. State fairs have expanded their lineups to include miniature classes.
There are even rodeos for kids and their wee bucking bulls: The Stephens County Fair & Expo in Duncan, Okla., will host the Mini Bucking Bulls World Finals next month, when 45 riders, ages 7 to 14, will vie for $9,500 and a rhinestone-encrusted belt buckle the size of a tea cup.
The 4-H minicows are a far cry from the full-sized black bull Kristie Petersen had showed when she was in high school. The animal weighed nearly 2,000 pounds. Kristie, with a slender dancer’s frame, barely clears 5-foot-2 when she’s standing tall.
She gritted her teeth when the bull dragged her across the barn.
Now, she shows the family’s minicows at state fairs with pride. But she does try to give the animals a bit of a pep talk before they enter the barn.
“They cower a little bit when they spot those big bulls,” she said, patting the head of Stud, her mini Hereford bull. “But really, who wouldn’t?”