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Apr 11, 2005
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Moo-ve over, Fido: Minicows popular pets
Contra Costa Times

By Jeanine Benca

August 10, 2006

See, she'll just keep doing it until she breaks the fence Judy Dresser knows bigger is not always better, especially when it comes to livestock. On her Danville ranch live six miniature black Angus beef cows.

Dresser began breeding and selling the Australian-developed cattle for fun about two years ago and considers her designer beefers 'part of the family.'

Compared to standard-sized Angus, which run from about 1,000 to 1,200 pounds, Angus 'Lowline' cattle weigh between 600 and 800 pounds. The Dresser Ranch currently is the only Lowline breeding operation in the Bay Area and one of only 11 in California, according to the American Lowline Registry of breeders.

Still, industry insiders say all types of diminutive cattle, of which about 26 different breeds exist -- including mini-Herefords, Holsteins and Jerseys -- are growing in popularity around the world, primarily as pets for moms with large back yards.

Although minicattle are raised for meat in some places, current U.S. prices would make it mighty pricey steak. A regular Angus may cost about $1,000, but Lowlines can run $3,000 to $15,000 at auction, Dresser said.

Keeping a pet cow might seem strange, but the minis can be handy, said Dresser, who points out, 'I've never once had to cut the grass.'

Interest in smaller bovines is flourishing as more families fan out to the suburbs and large tracts of ranch land become scarcer, said Richard Gradwohl. A retired marketing professor, he owns one of the largest and oldest miniature-cattle ranches and research facilities in the country.

In fact, about 80 percent of his stock is sold as pets. Others are bought by breeders for cattle shows, as miniature milkers and for all-natural farm-raised beef.

The founder of the Washington-state-based International Miniature Cattle Breeders Society, Gradwohl estimates the mini-market has grown about 10 percent to 20 percent per year since he got into the business about 35 years ago. He estimates there are about 1,000 of the minis in the United States.

Mostly women buy the minis, Gradwohl said. 'They don't want a big animal. They want something that's cute, that's affectionate, that they can treat as a pet.'

Minicattle weren't created to be pets. Lowlines in particular were developed in the 1970s by an Australian research company as part of a study on growth rate and natural selection among high-quality Angus cattle. In the mid-1990s, about 100 of the miniature animals were auctioned off on the world market. The Australian Lowline Registry organization of breeders assembled soon after, hoping to keep track of and promote the animals.

In theory, Lowlines have economic advantages for the commercial beef industry; they eat less and take up less space, but would yield more meat, said Gradwohl. Ten Lowline cattle weighing 700 pounds each can be raised on five acres of land, whereas standard Angus cattle average two animals per five acres, Gradwohl said.

Lowlines cause less damage to the land, and probably create less methane. They tend to be more tender than larger cattle and provide smaller beef cuts, which fit easier into freezers.

But while some smaller commercial ranchers have begun to express interest, larger beef operations are slow to change. One reason is that slaughterhouses still get paid by the pound, Gradwohl said, and processing time is the same for any size animal.

On a recent sunny morning at the Dressers' 8-acre ranch, Judy and her husband, Dan, watched Kathy -- their son's full-sized Angus heifer -- try to bust into the family's pigpen.

'See, she'll just keep doing it until she breaks the fence,' said Judy, tugging on Kathy's halter. 'The other (miniature) ones won't do that.'

For Dresser, the minicattle are something different and fun. She was introduced to them -- two miniature red-and-white horned Herefords belonging to a family friend -- at her son's 4-H fair. 'The only thing I didn't like was that they had horns.'

She began researching other miniature varieties, finally settling on a Lowline cattle breeder in Southern California.

The Dressers, who maintain a Web site advertising their Lowlines, periodically invite a neighbor's bull onto their ranch to mate with the cows. They have sold two miniature calves so far, said Judy -- a housewife with no prior experience with animals until she and her husband bought the ranch 12 years ago.

Dave McDonald, head of the Australian Lowline Registry, says a similar trend is happening in Australia, where the little cows are finding favor on suburban ranchettes.

'The (minis) are filling a gap where these smaller farms can't handle the great big Herefords or larger animals,' McDonald said.

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