People who never fancied themselves livestock owners are finding themselves fascinated with tiny cows. The United States has seen a huge surge in the popularity of miniature cattle. Fueling the movement is the expansion of the homesteading community and the goal of being self-sustaining. The pandemic only accelerated this trend.
A common misconception is that miniature cattle are simply stunted or malnourished full-size cows. This is false. Miniature cattle are the result of generations of selective breeding and choosing selected genetics to reduce size, while promoting the best breed qualities, conformation and temperament.
Although miniatures can be registered, many aren’t purebreds but are crossbreds, a mixture of genetics from different breeds to create the desired size and appearance.
The International Miniature Cattle Breeders Registry is the world’s oldest and largest registry of miniature cattle. The registry was founded in 1989 by Richard Gradwohl. Together with his family, Gradwohl developed more than 18 trademarked breeds of miniature cattle.
After Gradwohl’s death, the registry was purchased by Ben and Melanie Yoder, who also own Cyrus Ridge Farm in Augusta County, Virginia. Here they breed and sell micro and miniature Scottish Highland Cattle.
Why Go Small?
Because miniature cattle are just 1⁄2 to 1⁄3 the size of full-size cattle, they are less threatening and intimidating for people just starting out homesteading or hobby farming. They also have the reputation of being docile and easy-going.
Certainly, many people buy mini cattle as pets, but their popularity is also practical.
A miniature milking breed, like a Jersey or Scottish Highland, can produce 1 to 1 1/2 gallons of milk per day. A miniature beef cow can provide enough meat to feed a family of four for months.
“Most people don’t want a 2,000-pound cow on their 5-acre tract, so the idea of mini cattle for meat and milk is growing in popularity,” says Ben Yoder, who raises Scottish Highlands, a dual-purpose breed used for milk and meat. “They cause much less wear and tear on land than full-size cattle.”
Zeroing in on what you want to do with cattle will help narrow breed choices. “There’s nothing wrong with buying a cow because it’s cute,” Yoder says. “Honestly, that’s the reason we bought our first Scottish Highlands.
“But ultimately, you need to sit down and decide your goals: If you just want a cute pet, a meat breed or family milk cow. Then do research as to what breeds meet those goals. Each breed checks different boxes, so you have to know which boxes you want to check.”
Colin and Kelly Furness of FLIP LLC, have been breeding and selling miniature beef cattle at their Idlewild Ranch in Central Florida for more than two decades. They specialize in registered mini Herefords, mini Pandas, Belted Galloways and Black Baldies. They also sell miniature donkeys.
Colin is British and Kelly is a native Floridian, so they started with Herefords (a British breed) and Florida Cracker cattle.
“What are your farm goals?” is the first question Kelly Furness asks prospective clients. “Some people just want to have a pet. Others want an animal to brighten up the pasture. Some are serious about starting a small breeding program or want to raise a few cattle for meat and/or milk.
“Our most common client is someone wanting a bull and one or two heifers.”
Most of their clients have 5 to 15 acres and want to have a cattle experience, but with cattle that require less space than regular-size cattle. They sell to a lot of homesteaders and people just getting into livestock.
Do Your Homework
After spending time researching mini cattle online, you may be eager to get your own. Getting the proverbial “ducks in a row” first will make life easier.
“Start by doing research on what breeds you think will fit your farm needs. Then find a breeder, go meet and talk with them,” Yoder says. “Most breeders in the cattle industry are willing to talk and share if you’re interested in doing it right.”
Because of their small size, you can keep two or three miniatures in the same size area needed for one full-size cow. Cattle are herd animals, so plan on getting at least two.
The minimum amount of land needed for mini cattle varies. In general, each animal requires anywhere from 1/2 to 1 acre of land. Ask breeders what they recommend for the specific breed(s) you’re interested in. For example, with mini Scottish Highlands, the minimum is 3⁄4 acre of pasture per animal with lots of natural shade.
Supply & Demand
The enormous interest in miniature cattle has impacted the market. “Around 2019 to 2020, there was a huge spike in the popularity of mini cattle. And with that popularity, prices became inflated,” Yoder says, noting that it wasn’t unusual for a single cow to bring $10,000.
“Supply is finally meeting demand, and prices are coming down. We expect them to plateau at a more reasonable level and allow more people to get into the industry. It’s going to be a good thing for the industry as a whole once this balances out.”
That said, Yoder notes that it would be a challenge to find a good miniature Jersey cow for less than $5,000. Demand is so strong that reputable breeders routinely have clients make down payments on unborn calves.
When to Buy
Some breeders sell miniature cattle as very young calves. Other breeders, such as Yoder and Furness, only sell weaned calves, believing babies get a better start in life being nursed by their dams (mothers) those first months.
“It’s very common for breeders to sell calves because a big market now for mini cattle is as pets,” Yoder says. “They get much more interaction with humans than a full-size cow being raised for milk or meat.”
There’s no doubt young calves are adorable. Just realize that their care will be more intensive than if you buy an older, already-weaned calf. These “bottle babies” must be fed milk replacer twice a day until the calf is at least 2 1/2 to 3 months old.
Young babies may also be more vulnerable to illness, although reputable breeders only sell healthy calves.
Don’t Get Scammed
Because of the popularity of miniature cattle, there are lots of scammers trying to sell cattle. They advertise and post photos online and collect a down payment.
“The calf or cow never shows up because they never had it in the first place,” Yoder says. “If a deal sounds too good to be true, it most likely is.” He strongly recommends that all potential buyers contact breeders and schedule an in-person visit to see the cattle.
Fencing & Shelter
Before bringing cattle home, ask what type of fencing they’ve been in. For example, some may be accustomed to single-strand, electric-rope fencing and respect that.
For safety’s sake, you can’t go wrong with 48- to 60-inch-tall woven-wire or field fence for perimeter fencing. Then use single-strand electric fencing to portion off interior sections so you can do rotational grazing and keep your pastures in good condition. You’ll want at least one small corral with sturdy wood or pipe fencing where you can gather cattle when needed, such as for veterinary work.
All livestock need some form of shelter so they can get out of direct sun, wind, rain and snow. Depending on your location and the breed of cattle you buy, trees and a wooded area may be enough shelter. Or you may need a run-in shed.
For example, if you live in the northeast and plan to have Zebus, they’ll definitely need a good shelter for protection from extreme weather. Whereas Scottish Highlands are extremely hardy and rarely choose to use a manmade shelter unless they can’t find other shade.
There’s no such thing as “miniature cattle” food. These small cows eat the same hay and feed as full-size cattle, just less of it—typically 1⁄3 as much. Miniature cattle eat approximately 2 percent of their body weight in grass hay per day.
Depending on the breed, mature cattle may not need any grain in addition to hay.
Calves, however, should be fed a 16 to 20 percent protein “starter feed” from weaning until about 6 to 8 months of age. This helps ensure they receive adequate nutrition for proper growth. If you’re raising an animal for slaughter, you may opt to feed grain during the “finishing” phase.
Yoder explains that when feeding a cow to slaughter weight, grain gives the meat a sweeter flavor and higher protein than grass or hay only. “When a grass-fed cow is finished out, the meat usually won’t be as juicy or have as much moisture when grilling as one that is grain-finished,” he says.
Like any animal—pet or livestock—mini cattle will at times require the attention of a veterinarian. He or she can advise you about vaccination, deworming, injuries, breeding, calving and other health issues.
“You want a working relationship with a veterinarian who understands the breed of cattle you have,” Yoder says. “They can walk you through what works in your area, because what works in Virginia is very different from what would work in Florida.”
What About Horses?
For the safety of your mini cattle, don’t assume they can be pastured with full-size horses.
“When mixing bovine and equine families, there will be a hierarchy system, and they’ll fight for dominance,” Yoder says. “There’s a large size difference when a horse and mini cow fight. This can lead to injury or turn deadly.
“Cows butt and kick. Horses bite and kick. I’ve seen a horse grab a mini cow by the neck and kill it.”
Keep in mind that even though miniature cattle are smaller than full-size, they’re still livestock and more powerful than a human. “There needs to be a healthy respect between cow and human,” Yoder says. “If this is missing on either side, someone can get hurt.”
Reputable breeders are careful to use bloodlines that avoid negative influences the dwarfism gene can cause.
“Chondrodysplasia (‘chondro’) is a dwarfism gene that can be found in certain breeds of cattle,” says Ben Yoder, whose Cyrus Ridge Farm raises micro and miniature Scottish Highland Cattle.
“Some of the world’s leading experts in the production of miniature cattle have successfully used this gene, in combination with genetically small cows, to produce some of the smallest micro cows in existence,” he says. “Breeders need to do extensive research and education before properly introducing this gene to their herd. Irresponsible use of the gene can cause health issues.”
All About Small
There are three different categories of miniature cattle. Measurements are at 3 years of age, which is considered maturity. The common measuring point is from the ground to the top of the base of the tailbone.
- Micro: 36 inches or under
- Miniature: 36 1⁄4 to 42 inches
- Mid-size: 42 1⁄4 to 48 inches
(For comparison, full-size or “standard” cattle breeds stand well over 48 inches.)
10 Popular Breeds
Although there are now 30 or more rec-
ognized breeds of miniature cattle in the
United States, among the most popular are
- American Aberdeen Angus (previously known as Lowline)
- American Beltie (similar to Belted Galloway; also referred to as a “Cookie”)
- Black Baldie (mini Hereford-American Aberdeen Angus cross)
- Miniature Hereford
- Miniature Jersey
- Miniature Scottish Highland
- White Park (aka British Park)
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.