Starting Small

In a recent post, I advised aspiring farmers/homesteaders to “start small” in their plans for livestock. For us, that meant we should have tried dairy goats before graduating to a cow. Smaller livestock are easier to work with, easier to contain, cost less to feed, and are often more efficient at transforming that feed into meat or milk.

We got one thing right: we bought a Jersey cow, and not a Holstein. You’d have to have an extremely large family to consume the volume of milk a Holstein produces. For nearly any small farm, a Jersey is plenty — and much easier to manage.

A story in today’s LA Times highlights a number of farmers who have chosen smaller, heritage breeds of cattle.

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. Instead, 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.

You should, too. Go read the whole thing.

The overall lesson in here for aspiring homesteaders: don’t think you need to get the “industry standard” of whatever livestock is out there. I’d add, in a vein similar to that of the article, that Giant White turkeys might make sense for Butterball, but are lousy homestead animals. Heritage breed turkeys are usually much more practical.

But that doesn’t mean smaller is always better. White Leghorn chickens are very small, and are highly efficient at transforming feed into eggs, which makes them perfect for packing into concentration camp egg factories — but we tried letting a few run around our farm and we hated their temperament (and there was almost zero carcass left for chicken soup when we butchered them). Likewise, our friends who raise hogs have much preferred heritage breed pigs to the breeds raised in confinement in Iowa, even though the body sizes are similar. And if you’re going to be raising an animal which is already smaller by nature (i.e. goat versus cow), there is no need to keep going smaller. Pygmy goats, for instance, are cute and make nice pets, but I wouldn’t rely on them for my family’s meat or milk supply (unless we were trying to do stealth farming in an urban environment).

Paging Jeff Culbreath: Would you like to post a comment regarding the merits (and drawbacks) of Dexter Cattle? I didn’t see the breed mentioned in the LA Times story.