Cute Mignon: It’s What’s for Dinner


Pets or meat? You decide.

According to The Guardian, baby bovines may be poised to be the next, er, small development in sustainable animal husbandry. Good for the environment, good for consumers, good for farmers, and local economies.

Evidently, cows were once more diminutive than today’s cows. This was back when farms were smaller and family run, particularly in Britain where small landholders were the norm. In the middle of the last century, U.S ranchers began breeding for fast growth and size, translating to larger cattle.

But smaller cows are greener cows. Here’s why: Smaller cows actually need less land and are more efficient at transforming feed into flesh. The breeder referenced in the Guardian article found that he could raise 10 mini cows on just five acres, which would only hold two average size cows. That translates to 6,000 pounds of beef versus 3,000 pounds. That’s a lot more burgers per hoof.

Not only that, but cow belches and flatulence emit methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Astonishingly, it takes 10 mini cows to produce the methane of just one larger cow.

In addition to the environmental benefits, certain traits of mini cattle make them a better product for today’s meat eaters. A faculty publication from The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, published in the 2008 Miniature Cattle: For Real, for Pets, for Production article by Dana W. R. Boden notes that mini cattle produce a more petite cut of meat – useful during these times of conscious meat reduction by environmental and health conscious consumers. However, proportionally, the best cuts from mini cattle are larger than in conventional cattle. For example, the rib-eye from a mini cow is 25-50 percent larger than in a full-size cow. So people who like steaks get more of what they like.

Another trend that points to the future success of tiny cattle is the rise in meat buying clubs and meat CSAS. Smaller animals make sense for families buying and freezing a whole animal. Larger cattle are just too much for most freezers and most family’s eating habits.

Back to the pets or meat question. Are people really raising these novelty animals for food? Another article on the subject notes that hobbyists are raising mini cattle for small-scale milk and meat production, but most are purchased as pets. An exotic possession for the well heeled? Perhaps. The mini cows are more expensive due to their rarity but prices should come down once the supply balances out.

Once prices drop the baby bovines could be a boon not just for the environment and consumers, but also for the less well-capitalized smallholder farms and farmers in urban spaces. According to the 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the number of small farms has increased by over 46 percent since 1974. Among the small farm categories are retirement farms and residential/lifestyle farms. These are the types of operations that can support stronger regionalized and local food systems and the infrastructure that accompanies them, as well as feed the public hunger for locally produced food.

First we’ll need some work on the legal side of things. Thus far, chickens and rabbits are legal in many cities (with restrictions) and small goats are becoming more commonly accepted, but as far as I’ve been able to find out, cows (however tiny) are prohibited most everywhere urban or suburban. If you believe, as I do, that the blokes across the pond are way ahead of us in most things environmental and forward thinking, we have some good news from that quarter. Plans are ahoof in Bristol (England’s 6th most populous city) to graze a herd of cattle on a 200 acre park parcel. The meat will be used for local schools. According to an earlier article on the subject, the plan is not “about using local businesses and suppliers, but creating a more localized supply and trading network that benefits and involves businesses and citizens of Bristol.”

The plan is also to increase public use and enjoyment of parklands. According to one Councilor, “[the cows] are rather more attractive than the average lawnmower, and use less diesel.”

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: JoePyreks

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.