Lilliputian cattle that stand just a metre tall, eat a fraction of what their larger cousins do and produce tiny, naturally tender steaks and roasts, are increasingly the beast of choice among Canadian beef farmers grappling with the tough, gristly times of the economic downturn.
It wasn’t long ago that these smaller breeds didn’t get a lot of respect—even now commercial beef farmers look askance at the animals, affectionately referred to as “mini-cows,” says Adrian Hykaway, who raises one breed, the Dexter, in northern Alberta. “They chuckle and say, ‘Dexter—that’s just a little toy thing.’ ”
Richard Gradwohl, of the International Miniature Cattle Breeds Society and Registry, in Covington, Wash. has seen a 25 per cent increase worldwide in miniature cattle year over year during the past 15 years. Despite its big-sky, red-meat reputation, Alberta is the centre of the movement in Canada, with perhaps half of the country’s Dexter population and the first restaurant to serve exclusively Dexter beef—Apples, in Bashaw, an hour and a half northeast of Red Deer.
Mini-cow breeds weigh between 500 and 700 pounds, about half the size of regular breeds, and are either bred down from Hereford, Holstein, Jersey or Angus lines or, like the dual-purpose Dexter breed—good for both milk and beef—are naturally tiny.
A recent explosion in small hobby farms catering to niche markets helped boost their appeal even prior to the economic downturn, as did growing concern over food safety, sustainability and the environmental footprint of beef. Fans of raw milk are more and more turning to mini-cows to produce their own; the efficiency can be startling: a Holstein-Jersey miniature cross will eat a third of what a larger dairy cow will but produce two-thirds the milk. In the U.S., mini-cows are more and more popular as pets, particularly among women.
Enthusiasts, meanwhile, extol the excellent quality of the meat, which is said to be more tender. “They taste like good beef,” says Hykaway, a retired electrician who has 45 head at Tandria Dexters, just east of Fort Saskatchewan. “Because a lot of us aren’t using grain, they have that nice distinct grass taste.”
But it is mini-cows as an economical alternative to the bellowing giants of commercial beef operations that some see the real benefits. “You’re talking animals that are a lot less expensive to raise,” says Gradwohl. “The production per acre for smaller acreage farmers is significantly higher.” A mini-cow needs just half an acre of pastureland and can thrive on less expensive grass diets. They eat as little as half what larger breeds do but yield more meat per pound thanks to their slender bones—as much as 65 per cent that of their larger cousins. “We grow meat, we don’t grow bones,” boasts Katarina Sundstrom, whose Spruce Hill Ranch is located just west of Edmonton.
The Dexter, which originated in Ireland, is particularly hardy. It was once known as the “poor man’s cow” due to its ability to fatten up on small, meagre pasturelands. “They use their food more efficiently and they will get by on marginal pasture,” says Mary Ann Stevenson, of Applejack Ranch, who keeps over a hundred head of Dexter in Bashaw.
Placed on the endangered species list after commercial beef operations eschewed the breed for larger and larger animals, the Dexter began experiencing a resurgence in the 1980s thanks to its milk, which boasts a high buttermilk content, and an increase in smaller farms that has put hobbyists and retirees on the frontlines of cattle raising.
The Dexter and miniatures like the lowline—a small Angus—are more docile and much less intimidating than bigger breeds, a helpful trait for new farmers.
Changing diets have enhanced the growing popularity of mini-cows. “Nobody wants a steak that’s hanging over both sides of the plate anymore,” says Stephen Moore, chair of bovine genomics at the University of Alberta. Because the smaller breeds do well on grass diets—commercial cattle are mainly grain or corn-fed—the beef is higher in omega-2s and omega-3s. The prospect of growing beef in a backyard also appeals to those worried about recent food scandals, such as last summer’s listeria scare. “People,” says Sundstrom, “want to know what they put in their bodies.”
Still, the U of A’s Moore is skeptical of how broad the appeal will be in the years ahead, pointing to the inefficiencies inherent in processing roughly twice the number of animals and noting that packing plants are set up to handle bigger breeds. Gradwohl admits there is push back from slaughter houses, which see processing larger animals as more cost-effective. And most mini-cow farmers agree the animals won’t likely reach the mainstream any time soon. “They’re getting more popular,” says Hykaway, “but the drawback on it is mostly it’s older or retired couples.”