Just right for the garden: a mini-cow

August 17, 2008

Just right for the garden: a mini-cow
Miniature cattle farming is catching on with families trying to stay ahead of rising food pricesChris Gourlay
It’s the little cow with a big future. Rising supermarket prices are persuading hundreds of families to turn their back gardens into mini-ranches stocked with miniature cattle.

Registrations of the most popular breed, the Dexter, have doubled since the millennium and websites are sprouting up offering “the world’s most efficient, cutest and tastiest cows”.

For between £200 and £2,000, people can buy a cow that stands no taller than a large German shepherd dog, gives 16 pints of milk a day that can be drunk unpasteurised, keeps the grass “mown” and will be a family pet for years before ending up in the freezer.

The Dexter, a mountain breed from Ireland, is perfect for cattle-keeping on a small scale, but other breeds are being artificially created to compete with it, including the Mini-Hereford and the Lowline Angus, which has been developed by the Australian government to stand no more than 39in high but produce 70% of the steak of a cow twice its size.

Home on the range for the Farrant family is a detached house with a large garden on the outskirts of Ashford, Kent. Bernard Farrant and his wife Sue, both teachers, have bought four Dexters.

“With high food prices, they are actually quite an attractive option if you like producing your own food,” said Sue Farrant. “Both my husband and I have full-time jobs so we’re keeping them on the side as an interest. They do largely look after themselves and they’ve been hugely popular with the children.” Her husband said: “They have a phenomenal reputation for the quality of the beef. I think they are proving very attractive to families who have a bit of land and are interested in organic produce. From an economic point of view, we get to eat as much meat as we want and we roughly break-even, but you can sell what you don’t eat.

“As long as you’ve got plenty of grass they will be fine. You don’t really have to feed them.”

More than 4,100 Dexter cows were registered last year by the Dexter Cattle Society, which monitors the breed – more than double the figure in 2000.

“People are realising that if you’ve got a couple of acres, you can just stick them there,” said Sue Archer, the society’s breed secretary. “They eat grass so they are very cost-effective and they have a lovely temperament.”

The Dexter originated in the south of Ireland in the 1800s as an ideal “cottager’s cow”, producing enough milk for the house, and a calf a year.

Today’s mini-cattleman follows a similar pattern, choosing to keep a single “house cow”, collecting the milk each day and using artificial insemination to produce one calf annually for meat. Many people start with one cow and let it produce a calf before sending it to slaughter at the age of two, when the meat is at its most tender and high in healthy omega3 fats.

A desire for organic food, fuelled by health concerns over factory farming and soaring food prices, means that many people now see growing their own food as a viable alternative. As many as 2% of households are now estimated to have their own fresh supply of eggs. In the last year food prices have increased by a record 13.7%. The cost of meat has risen 16.3%, while milk, cheese and eggs rose by 19%, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics last month.

In America, small cow breeds such as the mini-Hereford are catching on among professional farmers keen to save money as the cost of feed skyrockets. These Herefords consume about a third less feed than normal cows and produce proportionately more beef for the amount of grain they eat.

Among the Dexter Society’s growing membership is Pam Ayres, the poet and songwriter, who lives with her husband and two sons and has a small herd of mini-cows in her 20-acre Cotswolds property.

“The government has no interest in where our food comes from or how it tastes, so it’s nice to set your own welfare and quality standards,” said Ayres, who is also a patron of the Battery Hen Welfare Trust.

“If you’ve got a bit of land, a breed like the Dexter can work out a lot cheaper than the supermarket, plus they do a pretty good job of mowing the lawn.”

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