Miniature Cattle May be a Good Fit for a Small Farm
The Advantages of Raising Small Cow Breeds
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Many families on a small farm enjoy having livestock but don’t have a lot of land for pasture. With only one or two acres, you might be able to keep one standard-size milk cow or a couple of calves to grow for beef. A lone animal is not happy or as productive as a cow with companions, however. This problem can be resolved with miniature cattle.
Several “minis” can make a “herd” and can actually produce more milk or beef per acre than one or two standard breed animals, just because the pasture will support more of them. Miniature cattle are also easier on your land, and easier to manage. Children can handle them and halter-break the calves.
Fences don’t need to be as tall; it’s easier to contain small cattle. It does require some adjustments and different facilities/equipment, however. For example, water tanks and hay-feeders need to be shorter.
You also shouldn’t breed a miniature cow to a standard-size bull, even if he’s smaller than the average of his breed. The genetic mismatch in size might create a larger calf, and the cow might need a cesarean to deliver the calf. The best option is to breed your miniature cows to miniature bulls using artificial insemination (AI).
Most of the miniature breeds today were created by selectively breeding smaller animals in traditional breeds, or utilizing some of the “older” genetics that were typical before the 20th century. Cattle brought into the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s were smaller animals, compared to cattle today.
Most modern cattle have been selectively bred to increase their size for more beef production or greater volume of milk. Some cattle still carry the genetics of their smaller ancestors, however, so the people who have been creating miniature cattle try to select these smaller-size purebreds, crossing them with a small-breed bull with proven traits. The goal is to keep desired conformation and relative purity of the breed (but creating smaller animals) through careful breeding and selection.
The International Miniature Cattle Breeder’s Society and Registry maintains herd books for 26 breeds, and the Animal Research Foundation registers minis of every breed, but several of the miniature breeds today, such as miniature Jerseys, Herefords, and Angus (often referred to as Lowline Angus), have been around long enough to establish their own registries and breeder lists. Their genetics are diversified enough and plentiful enough that inbreeding (and some of the problems that go along with it — such as dwarfism, if both parents carry that recessive gene) isn’t a serious issue.
Miniatures of many other breeds, such as Holstein, Highland cattle, and White Park, are harder to find and don’t have a miniature registry established yet. With a small gene pool, inbreeding is more of a concern.
The miniature Jersey cow is somewhere in between. There’s a registry but membership is small and most breeders have only a few cows. But the “small” Jersey population is diverse enough that they won’t become quickly inbred. Also, due to the popularity of the Jersey as a family milk cow, more folks are downsizing standard Jerseys using small-breed Jersey semen, which also helps with genetic diversity.
Other “small” cows, like the Dexter (from Ireland) and the Vechur from India, are traditional breeds of small-sized cattle. The Australian Lowline was the unexpected result of a scientific experiment with Angus.
Dexter cattle are traditionally tri-purpose (beef, milk, and draft) and small enough to be easily handled by women and children. This breed has good foraging ability, high feed conversion, and meat-to-bone ratios. You can finish a grass-fed Dexter steer in 18 to 24 months, and it will dress out at 50 to 60% of its live weight.
Small-framed cattle are becoming more popular today, especially among small farmers with only a few acres of pasture and people who raise grass-fed beef for custom butchering. The smaller animal is a more appropriate size for this niche market.
For instance, Lowline Angus have exceptional feed efficiency and less waste fat on the carcass, along with the benefits of calving ease. These small Angus began as a research experiment in Australia many decades ago at the Trangie Agricultural Research Centre in Australia, where two Angus herds were kept for many years. They kept one herd basically the same frame size they were when they were first imported from Scotland. The other herd was made up of animals selected for larger frames and more growth.
This research center was created in 1929 to provide high-quality Angus genetics to the Australian cattle industry, with seedstock purchased from Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Australia. The research herd was closed to outside genetics in 1964. As part of the performance testing, scientists kept track of weight gain, structural measurements, visual assessments, and did selective breeding to achieve certain goals.
The trial that led to Lowline cattle began in 1974, to evaluate selection for growth rate on herd profitability — to see whether large or small cattle were more efficient converters of grass to meat. For this experiment, the Trangie herd was divided into three groups, based on yearling growth rates. The high growth rate yearlings were called High Lines, the low growth rate yearlings were called Low Lines, and a randomly selected group was called Control Lines.
The trial focused on detailed evaluations regarding feed intake, weight gain, reproductive performance, milk production, carcass yield, and structural correctness. The Low Line herd started with 85 low growth rate (small-framed) cows, mated to bulls that were also selected for low growth rate from birth to yearling age (low yearling weights), and this herd remained closed to outside genetics. All replacement bulls and heifers were selected from within that line, based on the small size at maturity. After 15 years, the Lowlines were 30% smaller than the Highline cattle.
This research project continued for many years, and then was disbanded because most ranchers wanted big cattle. Australian cattlemen who purchased the small cattle started a Lowline Angus Association. By the late 1990s, a few North American cattle producers became interested in these cattle. A Canadian Lowline Association was formed in 1998. In 2017, the American Lowline Registry changed its name to Aberdeen Angus Association (promoting the “original” small-framed Angus cattle).
At birth, calves weigh 45 to 53 pounds. They grow rapidly at first because the cows give lots of milk and double their birth weight in the first six weeks. At eight months, the heifers average 240 pounds and bulls 300 pounds. As yearlings, heifers weigh about 420 pounds, and the bulls 510 pounds. Mature cows weigh about 700 to 750 pounds and bulls about 880 to 1,500 pounds. These cattle can produce 70% of the beef (on 50% of the feed required) of a larger animal. This means more cattle can be grazed and more total beef produced on any given pasture.
Mini Herefords are another scaled-down purebred breed. They mature earlier than standard Herefords, plus they are gentle, adapt to all climates, and are highly efficient foragers. The Miniature Hereford has been developed over the last 30 years by selective breeding of Herefords originally imported to the U.S. from England in the early 19th century. The breeding program to develop these smaller cattle was started by the Largent family in Texas in 1974. Rust Largent initially concentrated on breeding efficient cattle suited to the local conditions of his ranch. After working on size reduction for several years to increase efficiency, he used a bull called Laser that sired smaller daughters.
The only difference between a Hereford and a Miniature Hereford is height; the Miniature has the same body profile and proportions. A Miniature Hereford averages 42 inches in height and weighs 1,000 pounds or less. Otherwise, Miniature Herefords have the same characteristics as larger counterparts. All purebred Miniatures can be registered with the American Hereford Association, once they are checked free of the dwarfism gene, but they also have their own registry (Miniature Hereford Breeders Association).
Miniature Zebu cattle resemble Brahman cattle but are much smaller and sometimes have upright ears rather than drooping ears. They have the same short, sleek hair coat and tough, loose skin, with more sweat glands than other cattle, and do well in hot climates. They are more resistant to biting flies and ticks and thrive on marginal pasture. These cattle are eye-catching, docile, and easy to handle.
The Miniature Zebu was established as a breed in the U.S. with the formation of the International Miniature Zebu Association in 1991. At that time, there were small Zebu cattle in 23 American zoos, and others owned by about 50 private owners. The parent stock were originally imported from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Sweden.
Miniature Jerseys are perfect for a family farm, for folks who want a milk cow to produce their own milk and cream for butter and ice cream. Helping take care of a cow (and learning to milk one) is a good experience for children.
Jerseys are the smallest dairy cows and their milk has the highest percentage of protein and butterfat. They are very feed-efficient, with excellent feed-to-milk conversion. This trait is even more pronounced with Miniature Jerseys. They readily maintain weight while producing at their peak. Their lower feed requirement also means they can be managed on less acreage, and are less expensive to feed,
Today’s Miniature Jersey is very much like the “original” Jersey cow. The frame size of this breed gradually increased with selective breeding because the dairy industry wanted larger cows that could produce more milk. The full-size Jersey is still the smallest dairy cow, but much larger than her early ancestors. The Miniature Jersey of today descends from older bloodlines that were not changed as much in size.
A Miniature Jersey should look just like a full-size Jersey with proper structure — just smaller. True miniature cattle are bred to be proportionally smaller than their full-size counterparts, and should not just have short, tiny legs or a large head. Often, these disproportionate animals are actually dwarfs, the result of doubling up a genetic defect. Affected animals generally have short legs, and often have a big head and short nose (“bulldog” calf). This recessive trait often shows up when breeders try to create smaller animals by inbreeding and linebreeding. Many breeds (including Jersey, Dexter, Hereford, Angus, Shorthorn), have a few individuals that carry this recessive gene but the “dwarf” calf is only produced when two carriers are mated and the calf inherits a defective gene from each parent. Dwarfism in Miniature Jerseys sometimes occurs when breeders out-cross their Jerseys with Dexter cattle to reduce the height of the offspring.
The American Miniature Jersey Association & Registry began in 2000. Miniature Jerseys are divided into size categories, with true Miniatures reaching up to 42 inches when measured at the hip, and the larger “Mid-Miniatures” measuring between 42 and 46 inches. Cattle over 46 inches can be registered as breeding stock but not miniatures.
The weight of a standard-sized Jersey cow ranges from 800 to 1,200 pounds, while standard Jersey bulls can weigh as much as 1,800 pounds. Miniature Jersey cows range from 500 to 800 pounds and require only about one-third of the feed or pasture.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.