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Can tiny cattle preserve farms?

January 10, 2006

Few people who have grown up on the farm would dispute the idea that modern machinery has taken much of the back-breaking hand work out of agriculture.

But although there have been advances in breeding livestock, how many cattle a farmer can raise or milk has been determined by how much land is available on which to pasture them.

Until now, that is.

Last week The Associated Press (AP) reported that a number of breeders are developing "mini-cattle." Most are now being sold as pets, but their advocates say they have the potential to allow farmers, especially those with fewer acres, to get a better return on their investments.

Bill Bryan, an Eastern Shore breeder, told AP that the miniature breeds eat about a third of what a full-sized steer does.

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Bryan and other breeders said that means more meat can be produced per acre. While two full-sized animals need at least five acres, an acre will sustain two mini-cattle.

Richard H. Gradwohl, a breeder in Washington State, told AP that using that same five acres for miniature cattle would produce twice as much meat as full-sized animals.

Is there a catch? Of course. Mini-cattle calves now cost twice as much as standard-sized varieties. But as more breeders get involved, prices should start to drop.

Maryland could help by offering some subsidies to farmers who agree to try this new-fangled animal. If smaller cattle make it possible to keep smaller parcels in production, that would mean less development and fewer costs for all of the taxpayers to share.

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