Tekamah, Neb. — 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?” said Ali Petersen, 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 mini-cows — compact cattle with stocky bodies, smaller frames and relatively tiny appetites.
Their miniature Herefords consume about half the food required by a full-sized cow yet produce 50 percent to 75 percent of the rib-eyes and fillets, according to researchers and budget-conscious farmers.
“We get more sirloin and less soup bone,” Ali Petersen said. “People used to look at them and laugh. Now they want to own them.”
In the past few years, ranchers across the United States have been snapping up mini-Hereford and mini-Angus calves, which are small enough to fit in a person’s lap. Farmers who raise mini-Jerseys brag that each animal provides two to three gallons of milk a day, although 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.
Mini-cows are not genetically engineered to be tiny, and they’re not dwarfs. They are drawn from original breeds brought to the United States 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 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, and that has led some farmers to consider mini-cows.
It hasn’t been an easy transition. When the Petersens bought their first dozen minicows in the mid-1990s, friends told them they’d lost their minds. Some ranchers said they’d have trouble selling their mini-steaks. Even their youngest daughter was reluctant to show the cows at 4-H livestock contests back then.
“I got tired of people sneering and hearing the jokes,” said Kristie Petersen, now 23.
But gradually, a mini-boom in mini-cows took hold.
Today, there are more than 300 miniature-Hereford breeders in the United States, up from fewer than two dozen in 2000. There are about 20,000 mini-cows in the country, compared with fewer than 5,000 a decade ago, according to the International Miniature Cattle Breeds Registry.
Still, the animals represent a tiny portion of the 94.5 million head of cattle in the United States.
The mini-cows have been a perfect fit with another trend in farm efficiency — the move to “ranchettes,” smaller operations run by a family or a small group 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 U.S. 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 mini-cows last year because, she said, “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 mini-cows could be grass-fed, the Peevlers were spending half the amount on feed that they would have spent on regular-sized animals. The minicows also reached their mature weight faster, so they could be sold for meat sooner.