19 March 2011

Miniature Cows

Miniature cows are basically cows that are bred to be significantly smaller than "normal" cattle. I use the apology quotes there because cows used to be much smaller and were bred to be bigger because as we all know, bigger is better! A lot of these kinds of miniature cows (sometimes called "micro cattle" or "acreage cattle") were bred by mixing a lot of breeds together. Richard Gradwohl of Happy Mountain Farms in Washington State has developed miniature cow breeds this way, some of which include novelty breeds like the Panda Cow which got so much press attention when one was born on New Year's Eve.

All the articles agree that this breed was developed through "genetic manipulation." Some claim that it was in a laboratory. In this case, it was developed through a breeding program at Happy Mountain Farms. They note that this breed was "Thirty-five years in development!"

I heard about miniature cows because my cousin posted about the Panda Cow on Facebook. Her husband didn't even believe it was real, and maybe he still doesn't. Who can blame him? It's pretty crazy.

It seems like the miniature cows are getting attention because they are cute and are being marketed as a novelty pet. But what I want to talk about is the fact that they are a pretty intriguing option for raising beef. I'll talk about the cows first, though.

Miniature Cows in the Shenandoah Valley

I went to Misty Meadow Farm in Weyers Cave, Virginia in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley to talk to Rob Clements. Rob raises miniature Galloway cattle.

Miniature Galloway Cow photo by Callie Leuck
This cow shook her head like she was trying to clear it of flash spots after I took a picture straight-on.
Miniature Galloway Cow photo by Callie Leuck
Galloways have three colors: white, black, and red, and then with mixtures of markings on ears, socks, nose.
Miniature Galloway Cow photo by Callie Leuck
The calf wouldn't come very close.
Why minis? Well, Rob says they're actually more efficient for a farmer to raise. He gets about twice as much pounds per acre raising minis than raising full-size cattle. He can raise two minis with just one acre, while he'd have to have a few acres to raise two full-size cattle. (Starting to see why "acreage cattle" might be appropriate?)

Apparently they also create less manure (percentage-wise) than their full-sized counterparts. I was pretty amazed at how much they were pooping, but I will admit that I am a suburban girl and have never dealt with full-sized cattle--and as such am unable to make an accurate comparison.

The particularly special thing about Rob's mini cattle herd is that they are purebred Galloways. As I discussed earlier, a lot of mini cattle breeds are amalgamations of at least two different breeds.  There aren't that many purebred mini Galloways in the US. There's not even a separate registry for mini Galloways. But you can trace their pedigree back through the Galloway registry.

The special thing about them being Galloways is that Galloways have particular characteristics that make them desirable to farmers and to consumers. They have a double hair coat that keeps them warmer in winter and thus able to consume 20 percent less food than other breeds to maintain weight through the winter. They have strong mothering instincts and are docile. And their meat is described as being lean and juicy.

Galloway Burgers in My Kitchen

Rob sent me home with a pound of frozen ground Galloway beef. I wondered if it tasted different than other beef. Rob seemed to think that miniature beef wouldn't taste any different from beef from full-sized animals, although he did point out that meat flavors tend to differ among breeds of cattle.

One pound of ground beef. I used a quarter for my burger.

I put a little olive oil in the pan so it wouldn't burn.
I don't know if that was sensible or not.

I made an open-faced burger on bread and sliced avocados with harvarti cheese.

Here's a picture of the inside of the burger. It was super easy to cook through
on low heat in the skillet.
My review: two thumbs up! I made another burger with a second quarter, and then for fun used the last half to make tacos which were also pretty good. It was definitely some of the best beef I've had.

Rob told me that the specialty cuts were generally the most popular. Because they are from smaller cattle, the cuts are smaller! (Imagine that.) Apparently that's pretty popular. Think of it -- a steak you could actually eat in one meal without feeling like a total glutton.

Personally I like ground beef because I'm used to it. If they had this meat in my grocery store I would totally buy it. But unfortunately Rob cannot sell his beef to the packaging plants. They're out to make a profit, too, so they want the really big cows to process, not smaller cows.

So Rob sells his cattle locally. Some he does sell as pets. When he sells them for meat, sometimes people take the cow as-is and take it to the slaughter themselves. Other times, he takes it to the place that does the slaughtering when someone puts in an order. The mini cows are small enough that a family with a deep freezer could put a whole carcass in their freezer. Sometimes one or two families will get together to put in an order.

Frankly I don't think my roommates would appreciate it if I stuck a whole mini cow in our freezer. But for those out there who have the resources, this would be a great--and delicious--way to support local farmers, sustainable farming, and get a whole ton of Green Karma points.

Photo Albums

What about you?

Would you give mini cows a try? Pets or food?