Meat From Minis
Pint-sized cattle provide land-efficient beef.
By Callie Leuck
An unusual herd of cattle graze in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They are all less than three and a half feet tall and nearly as broad as they are wide — like “barrels on legs,” said Rob Clements when we met on his property, Misty Meadows Farm, a few miles off Exit 235 on Virginia’s I-81. Miniature cattle have gotten attention of late mostly as novelty pets — particularly for people with little land who want to keep livestock — but they are also an efficient way for a farmer to raise meat.
Clements began breeding miniature cattle almost by accident. While raising full-sized Galloways, he found one of his cattle was on the small side. When he bred it with another small Galloway, the resulting calf was so small that Clements was concerned. Then he discovered there are people who are intentionally raising and breeding miniature cattle.
These smaller cattle are being bred for two main reasons: they are easier to handle, and they require less land per acre, says the International Miniature Cow Breeders Society (IMCBS). Two full-sized cattle need five acres, while two miniatures need just two acres.
The IMCBS and a registry that tracks twenty-six miniature cattle breeds are run by Happy Mountains Miniature Cattle Farm, a Seattle-based organization started over thirty years ago by the late Richard Gradwohl. His organization developed eighteen breeds of miniature cattle by crossing various full-size breeds with smaller cows until they “bred true.” " Two animals of the same variety “breed true” when they produce consistent, replicable, and predictable offspring.
Still, miniature cows are not common. Clements’ farm is one of the few places in Virginia that breeds minis at all, and unlike the new amalgamated breeds of miniatures at Happy Mountains, Clements’s herd is purebred Galloway - unusual in the US. Clements’ miniatures are registered alongside normal-sized cattle on the US Galloway registry; there is no separate registry for miniature Galloways.
In Australia, Galloway miniatures are more common. An official Australian Miniature Galloway registry provides the criteria: less than fifty-pound birth weight and no more than one hundred five centimeters (three and forty-four-hundredths feet) at the top of the back at eleven months. Clements has carefully cultivated his cattle's genes to meet the criteria for miniature Galloways, picking up more small Galloway bulls over time. All the animals in his herd, which contained forty-three animals in 2011, meet the Australian criteria.
According to the IMCBS, total beef production per acre is significantly greater when raising miniature cattle. Clements found he was able to produce more beef per acre when he switched to minis. Indeed, his pounds per acre doubled. Because the miniatures have a smaller body frame and size to maintain, they also have a better feed efficiency. Clements agreed with the IMCBS that miniature cattle are easier to handle, and added he had noticed they tend to be more docile than their larger counterparts.
Why then, if these smaller cows are so much more efficient to raise, are they not commonplace? Why aren’t all American hamburgers made from miniature cattle?
"You can’t sell them on the commodity market!” Clements explained. “The packing plants want big. They want a big cow to put on a hook."
The drive for large cattle began after World War II, when Americans migrated to cities and demand for meat began to rise. Before this, most cattle were smaller, much closer to the size of new miniature breeds today. But as demand for meat rose, demand for big cattle rose too.
One miniature breed that Richard Gradwohl developed for beef production at Happy Mountains “never took off as well as the cute minis for pets,” said his daughter Michelle Gradwohl. She added that it would be difficult to persuade all the ranchers who raise full-sized cattle for beef production to switch to miniature cattle.
Still, miniatures could appeal to a niche market. Aside from their high efficiency, miniature cattle also boast superior beef. In an article on his website, Richard Gradwohl wrote that the shorter cell structure in miniature cattle naturally leads to tender meat. Large cattle have long, slender cells that tend to be tougher; they are therefore fed grain to fatten them up and “marble” the beef, creating pockets of fat throughout the meat. “This results in many undesirable effects from feeding cattle grain and hormones to make them gain faster,” Gradwohl wrote.
Clements suspects the flavor has more to do with the difference between how individual farmers raise grass-fed miniature cattle compared to how larger cows are raised in factory farms, than with the cell structure. Additionally, as many of the new miniature cattle breeds were developed by mixing breeds, they may have characteristics from those different breeds that could result in a unique-tasting beef. After all, “different breeds have [different] flavors,” according to Clements.
In his experience, beef from his miniature Galloways maintains the Galloway beef's reputation for great flavor. Galloway cattle have a double hair coat that reduces the need for internal fat for warmth, making purebred Galloway beef lean and juicy. Its flavor is noticeably different from Angus beef, which is the most common commercially available beef in the US. The flavor of the miniature Galloways may also be influenced by stress - or rather, lack of stress. Michelle Gradwohl noted in an email that miniatures are usually raised in a calm environment such as a small farm, unlike the larger cattle raised in feed lots. When cattle are stressed, as they often are in feed lots, they release hormones that give a less appealing flavor to the meat.
The most noticeable difference in the miniature cattle meat is the smaller size of the specialty cuts. “People don’t want big steaks,” Clements said. “Some will cut them up in four pieces for different meals.” For people who don’t want gigantic portions, steaks from the minis are reasonable sizes for a single serving. The IMCBS says these smaller cuts are “perfectly suited to the restaurant trade.”
The smaller size of these specialty cuts, combined with the fact that miniatures are currently grass-fed and free of unnecessary hormones, means that small farmers raising miniatures may find a specialty market in restaurants and among individuals interested in land-efficient, and therefore eco-friendly, hormone-free beef.
Callie Leuck is a writer and proofreader currently working for a Medicare contractor in Indianapolis, Indiana. She holds a master's degree in science-medical writing from Johns Hopkins University. She can be reached at email@example.com