Marie Alexander says when she first invested in her livestock, neighbours passing by could barely believe their eyes. “If you come to my place, I have the largest horses and (some of) the smallest cattle in the world. I used to get skid marks on the road where people stopped.”
Alexander pastures Shires, the world’s largest draft horses, and Miniature Hereford cattle at her rolling little property—Starburst Ranch—near Duffield, about three-quarters of an hour west of Edmonton, Alta. The Miniature Herefords are part of a small but growing trend in the cattle industry that is attracting attention from acreage owners looking for manageable, interesting and, possibly, profitable cattle breeds. Alexander is a founding member of the Miniature Hereford Association of Canada, which was formed in 2000. The unique breed is much more than a passing fancy, she says.
There’s a similar story with other small cattle, including Lowlines, a stand alone breed developed in Australia from standard Angus cattle; and Dexters, a heritage breed of cattle that originated in the southern Ireland.
Small cattle enthusiasts tend to have their preferences, pointing to differences among the various small cattle options. Still, small cattle tend to have a few things in common, regardless of breed.
On Balance: Big Versus Small
The average size of a cattle breed doesn’t necessarily have a lot of bearing on its ability to transform feed into beef, according to a University of Guelph geneticist. “The research we’ve done here shows there’s not much of a difference for feed efficiency that can be associated with the size of an animal—which was a surprise in a way,” Dr. Jim Wilton, professor emeritus, says.
“The original thinking was that as people bred cattle to be bigger, the cattle would also be more efficient . . . We’ve done a lot of research on these things. We started when the Charolais was coming into Canada.”
Wilton says there are inherent advantages, however, for both large and small cattle. Smaller cattle generally perform better on pasture. Compared to larger animals, they don’t need to move as far to access all the food they need for optimum growth. That may also translate into a marketing advantage for small cattle owners who can meet niche demands for grass-fed and naturally-raised beef.
The big beef animal advantage lies with logistics. In feedlots, larger animals do not have a problem getting all the food they need for optimum growth. And with the larger size, it doesn’t take as many animals to produce the same amount of beef as with smaller animals.
For producers, this translates into fewer cattle to be handled. For packers, it costs about the same to process a large cattle beast as it does a smaller one.
There are relatively few small cattle in the world, compared to the larger animals. In Canada, there are only a few hundred Miniature Herefords, Lowlines and Dexters.
Most obviously, small cattle are, well, small. One of Marie Alexander’s Miniature Hereford cows might weigh 700 lbs whereas a full size Hereford will weigh 1,800 lbs. Smaller cattle are easier to handle and better suited to small-acreages with modest handling facilities. There’s also less of a safety concern for young people and for older folks who may have worked around cattle all their lives but are looking for something a little easier to handle.
Smaller carcasses yield cuts of beef that tend to meet the needs of many of today’s smaller families. People want to eat beef, but not in huge amounts.
Small size is linked to other attributes. Miniature Herefords, Lowlines and Dexters perform well on pasture or hay. Even when there are sparse pickings, small cattle tend to maintain their condition. And forage-based beef is marketing at a premium these days.
Owners of all three breeds report that good temperaments are typical and say veterinarian bills are minimal.
If you only sold small cattle through an auction, chances are you’d sell at a substantial discount; auctions are designed for, and attended by, buyers of regular breeds of cattle. However, small cattle breeds command a premium for those with a knack for marketing.
Alexander and other Miniature Hereford owners, like Bill Rendall, of Sunset Ranch, at Madden, Alta., are participating in a breeders’ market—selling fertilized embryos and semen to New Zealand, Australia, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Scotland and the place where the Hereford breed originated, England. They are also developing beef markets for culls.
In Canada, Miniature Herefords sell for $2,500 and up.
“Now we’re down to what I consider to be a proper price. You pay about the same for a Miniature Hereford as what you pay for a good quality, registered Hereford,” Alexander says.
Most Miniature Hereford owners finish their cattle on grass. That can take time—as long as 24 to 26 months—but pasture is cost-effective and Miniature Hereford boosters say bigger animals can not compete in a forage-based system.
An informal survey of Miniature Hereford owners in the US and Canada reveals that most animals dress out at 60 per cent—or even better— compared to dressed weights of around 50 per cent for many conventional cattle. In round terms, that means small cattle will dress out at slightly over 400 lbs where conventional cattle will dress out at 900 lbs.
That factor, combined the breed’s ability to perform well on pasture, provides decided advantage. Rendall says that Miniature Herefords also tend to have a larger ribeye area, as a per cent of their carcass weight. The ribeye area is the location of the best cuts of beef. “Not only will you get more beef with less feed, you’ll get better cuts of beef,” Rendall says.
“I think all the breeders are starting to come around . . . there’s recognition that the (conventional) animals are getting too big.”
East and south of Alberta’s rolling cattle country, where much of Canada’s Miniature Hereford population is located, Jerry and Kathy Jensen produce Lowlines. They farm near Climax, Sask., a few miles from the Montana border. “We’ve been at it since about 1997. I guess we were one of the first ones in Canada to jump into it,” says Jerry Jensen, a past president of the Canadian Lowline Cattle Association. He estimates there are now 300 full blood Lowline cattle in Canada.
With a herd of 25 cows and three bulls, Jensen says he brought in Lowlines to diversify his dryland, cash-crop operation. He happened to meet the fellow who was importing them from Australia and liked what he saw. “They were the perfect little cows but about half of the size,” says Jensen, who had considered investing in exotic livestock species, such as alpaca or emus.
“I thought with having a beef animal that at least you’d have something you could eat and the beef (from a Lowline) is about as good as it gets . . . ours do get a little grain but in my opinion, these cattle are well suited to grass finishing.”
The Jensens sell their cattle to other breeders and have also developed a market among conventional cattle producers for Lowline bulls and semen. Crossed with a Lowline bull, a first-time heifer will drop a lighter calf weighing around 40 pounds instead of 60. That’s a good insurance against calving complications.
Jensen doesn’t make claims of dramatically better performance with Lowlines but he says the breed is well adapted to pasture and hay-based diets. According to the Australian Lowline Cattle Association (ALCA), studies show Lowline steers will dress out around 59 per cent and, like miniature Herefords, have a significantly larger ribeye area.
The Canadian Lowline Association is currently investigating a “breeding up” program which would help increase the number of registered Lowlines in Canada. The strategy involves breeding an initial Lowline-cross heifer and her offspring to Lowline bulls. After the third generation, any offspring with the right confirmation could be registered as a Lowline.
At a recent auction in the U.S. prices for Lowline cattle averaged $9,000. In Canada, a bred female sells for $5,000, and a bull for $2,500.
In southwestern Ontario, near Exeter, Ed Post doesn’t make performance claims for his Dexter cattle but the vice-president of the Canadian Dexter Cattle Association says the Dexter breed does have considerable merit.
A Dexter crossed to a conventional beef breed will finish well on just grass or hay. Post finishes his Dexter-cross calves in about 14 months and says the carcasses usually grade ‘AA’ for marbling. A pureblood Dexter, in comparison, might take 24 months to finish. “I crossbreed them with the island breeds, a Hereford or an Angus, and that gives me a meatier animal but not necessarily a much larger one,” Post says.
Dexter cattle may also be the ultimate easy keepers. They maintain condition on just pasture or grass-based hay and never needed a vet. This allows Post, who keeps three cows and their offspring, to focus on his hogs.
Dexter heifer costs about $750.
“[Dexters] are suited to property with substandard grazing or unimproved pasture . . . My dad has never seen anything like them and he’s been around cattle all his life . . . When the burdocks are out in the spring, they’ll eat them first.”
Along with their commercial potential, Post sees a benefit in maintaining the breed for the genetic diversity they represent within the cattle industry. As with Miniature Herefords and Lowlines, Dexter bulls are useful for breeding first-time heifers.
Post supplies his own family and five other families with meat, working with a local abattoir. “I cover my costs, plus. I’m going to do that or I’m not going to have them around.” intersection: it’s hard to keep everyone moving to the right place at the right time. Even though farming is a full-time gig for Lewington (Bedard works part-time as an x-ray technician), “there are days when we’ve got too many jobs to do, and it’s difficult to juggle and decide what the priorities are and what’s going to wait until next day.” Because there are so many variables involved, a complex multi-species operation requires a lot of on-the-job learning, and continual fine tuning.
Before adding a species, “you need to have clear economic benefits. Otherwise you can put a lot of time and effort into something that will just cost you money,” says John Duynisveld, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research biologist who also raises cattle, chickens, goats, pigs and turkeys on his own pasture-based farm near Wallace, NS.
Having a market for your additional species is the key concern, as is the cost of adding extra stock. If you don’t have ready customers, you could start small for home consumption, Duynisveld says. But for anything on a commercial scale, you’ll want a return that covers the labour required to choreograph the movement of fences and animals.
On the cost side, infrastructure can be a problem. “If you’ve already got sheep fencing, that will work for cattle. But a single-strand fence for cows isn’t going to stop a lamb,” Duynisveld says. And there’s the “skill-set” issue: you may have a handle on raising your main species, but you’ll have to learn anew with the additional one. That’s why it makes sense to start with complementary stock. Sheep and cattle, for example, or sheep and chickens.
But for graziers who can make it work, a multi-species operation proves the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Adding a species (or two, or three) just may produce a farm that’s more resilient, fertile, and profitable. “We’re not about trying to sell at a discount,” Lewington says. “We’re about trying to do a good job.”
Breed Characteristics: the Basics
Most of today’s miniature Herefords trace their origins to Texas where the Largent family of Fort Davis resisted the trend toward larger animals. Back in the 1960s the big Continental breeds from Europe, including the Charolais and Simmental, were being introduced to North America. But the Largent family moved in the opposite direction, developing miniature Herefords from their Classic Hereford line.
According to Regena Gribbenow, a close associate of the Largent family, typical Miniature Hereford cows weigh around 700 pounds and are normally less than 50 inches at the hip while typical bulls weigh anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 pounds and stand around five feet. Both cows and bulls are built close to ground and possess a thick, stocky frame.
Lowlines were developed from standard Angus cattle during an experiment in the 1970s by the New South Wales Department of Agriculture. The impact of size on conversion efficiency was being compared.
In the early 1990s, the Lowline research herd was purchased by individuals who formed Australian Lowline Cattle Association (ALCA). Today, Lowlines are recognized as separate breed from Angus cattle.
Mature Lowline cows are typically a little less than 40 inches at the hip and weigh around 700 pounds. Typical bulls are another four inches taller and weight close to 900 pounds.
Lowlines are always black.
Dexter cattle are dual purpose animals, valued for both meat and milk production. They originate in the south and southwestern parts of Ireland and may have been among the first cattle brought by pioneers to Canada because of their small size and thrifty nature.
Dexters are usually black but can also be dun-coloured or even reddish. Typical cows weigh less than 750 pounds and stand a little over 40 inches at the hip. Typical bulls are a couple inches taller and weigh around 1,000 pounds.