The Pros and Cons Of Mini or Dwarf Livestock

Samantha BiggersSamantha Biggers | Updated Jul 1, 2019 (Orig - Apr 26, 2019)

 

 

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When it comes to raising livestock you have to be careful when picking out what animals and breeds to invest your time and money in. Mini livestock have gained popularity for a variety of reasons but there are some factors that you need to think about before you rush out and bring home that cute mini cow.

Some smaller breeds are the result of a lot of human intervention and guidance. Humans choose what animals to breed and thus create a smaller version over time until they get to the size they want and the animals breed true generation after generation.

Naturally small animals are those that have just got that way on their own for the most part. The Dexter breed of cattle is one example of this. Nigerian Dwarf goats are another breed that is just small without a bunch of human intervention. That is not to say that some breeders don’t try to plan the breeding of animals for specific colors or traits at times.

Always check the livestock laws in your area

Local laws and ordinances can vary a lot so it is best to check and see what is allowed before getting any livestock, even chickens. There may be rules that limit how many animals you can have in town or a ban on roosters. Some areas require that any animal housing must be a certain number of feet from any adjoining property lines.

First let’s look at some of the advantages of smaller livestock.

  • Can be raised in a yard rather than a field.
  • Easier to move, catch, and perform routine care
  • Requires fencing but it doesn’t have to be as tall or strong as that required for full size livestock
  • Provides meat and possibly milk to those in towns or even larger cities.
  • Less scary for those that are simply not comfortable with large animals.
  • Require less feed per animal. A mini cow or pig can be supported on less during hard times.
  • More variety of animals in a smaller space. If you have a mini cow you might be able to support a flock of chickens, rabbits, and more on a very small piece of land.

Disadvantages of mini livestock

  • Can be harder to find
  • Finding the opposite sex in your area. A small cow, goat, sheep, or pig, must be bred to another small breed. When a female is bred to a sire that is too large, birthing difficulties or death can occur unless the you just get lucky or the pregnancy is terminated by a veterinarian.
  • Mini or small livestock can be very expensive in some cases, especially if you want specific breeds or bloodlines.
  • While expensive, it can be harder to sell animals that are considered exotic or specialized. Sure you hear about people making a lot of money selling breeding stock sometimes but it is rarer than some might think.
  • Some people have a hard time butchering stock that they find too cute. This is something to consider seriously, especially if you have others in the household that may have a hard time with any butchering at all.
  • Genetic issues can be more common in breeds that have been inbred a lot to achieve size. It is not a guaranteed thing but it is something to consider.
  • Mini livestock can still be dangerous. A cow that weighs a few hundred lbs is very strong but people often underestimate the strength because it looks so darn little and cute. Take it from the Biggers’, even a 150 lb calf has to be tied up with a rope if you need to do anything with them.

The price on mini or exotics is not as stable as breeds that are common and can be sold at a livestock auction for market price

I remember in the 1990s and early 2000s when Boer goats were fetching top dollar. Plenty of people were paying $350 or more for a smelly Billy goat from a decent bloodline.  Now it is a lot harder to sell that type of goat and you are lucky to get half the amount of money. Money went a lot further 15-20 years ago too!

The artificial inseminator that came out when we were trying to get our cow bred by a prize winning bull told us the unfortunate situation he got into when buying mini horses. He paid $1,500 for one and one point and then suddenly no one wanted to buy a mini horse and he couldn’t even get $50 for one.

Now I realize that horses are not considered food in the United States by a lot of people and that the value of something considered edible may not dip as drastically as that mini horse did but it does show how drastically the bottom can fall out of the market when dealing with odd breeds and sizes.

Our experience with Dexter cattle is a good example of the trouble of smaller stock and odd breeds

Our first Dexter calf, Linda Lou. This was 2009. Hard to imagine that the overgrown lot we are standing in is now a vineyard.

Matt and I wanted a small cow to possibly milk and get some beef out of when we were first starting out on our property. The Dexter breed is one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the world. They are a true dwarf not just a genetic anomaly. We liked that the breed was known for being useful for meat, milk, and small oxen. The price was not outrageous for a registered full blooded cow. This was back in 2009 when we finally decided to get married and were living in a camper that nothing worked in. We would visit the female calf we were going to buy every few weeks until she was ready to come home. We went to the court house and got married and used the money people gave us for marriage gifts to buy that cow. It was money well spent considering that we could have blew it on a vacation or something that would have been gone in no time. That cow did a lot of work towards getting our fields clear and she gave us some beautiful calves that put meat on the table.

Bessie and her new calf. She was the mother of Linda Lou but we bought her a year after Linda Lou. She had strange horns that curved in so they had to be trimmed.

One of the problems with Dexters is that they must be bred to a very small bull. This meant that we had to use artificial insemination which is very timely. Cows come and go out of heat fast.

The cost of artificial insemination can really add up because you have to order semen and have it stored until use and then pay the person that does the artificial insemination. There is no guarantee that it will work either.


You can always have someone haul your cow to a bull if you work something out with another farm. The last and easiest option if you are going to raise many cattle is to buy and keep your own bull. This is what we finally decided to do after we bought our cow’s mother so we had two cows and a bull and that is a good start towards a little herd of cattle.

The conclusion at the end was that the steers (fixed males) were too hard to fence and keep away from their mothers. The bull wanted to get loose and breed other cows nearby. The horns were dangerous. You can get Dexter cattle that do not have horns but most do. Dehorning is always an option and easier to do when young.

Breeders have practically ruined the breed in my opinion. For example, the breed standard is 1000 lbs or less for a bull and 750 lbs or less for a cow. Dexters are rarely that small anymore but they are allowed to be shown with no penalty for being much larger than the breed standard. When 1500 lb bulls are being shown as Dexters there is a major problem. I believe there is more Angus blood in there than most are willing to admit.

Hank, the horned Dexter bull. He got to be too much to deal with and didn’t respect fences. He was also a little bit in love with the goat on the left. She was a really huge goat.

Another issue is that breeders are often not willing to butcher off animals that do not have good genetics or meet standards. This is at least partially because people invest in a specific breed and have money tied up into it. Breeders want to sell a cow for top dollar as a breeder. To sell grass-fed beef requires more work and means that you have to arrange for butchering and processing.

You will lose out if you cannot bring yourself to send cattle to the butcher

I had someone call me and tell me that they had an outstanding 14 steers they wanted to sell because they did not have the heart to have them butchered. If you are like that then you need to consider if you should even be involved with cattle or any livestock for that matter. You cannot keep them all and even if you sell them off, chances are the end result is going to be the same. I know people get really attached to their chickens sometimes but keeping them too long means you get less eggs for the amount of feed you are putting into them. It is not sustainable.

Some old characteristics have been bred out of the breed like milk production

Many people try to play up the fact that the Dexter is a breed that you can milk and get quality beef out of. The milk part is largely not true. You may get a few quarts if you are lucky milking twice a day while allowing a calf to nurse. Of course you would get more by removing the calf but it is still far less than the gallons that some claim a Dexter will produce and it is a ton of work to milk them. Cows really can kick a lot when they don’t want to do something. We tried to milk for a while and even had a real milking stock. The milk is delicious but there is not much of it and too much kicking.

Mini pigs may not be so mini

I have heard a lot of people talk about how they would like to have a mini pig either as a pet or for meat. Well the fact is that a lot of those mini pigs turn out to be not so mini at all. This resulted in people having 200 lb pigs that they thought would be less than 100 lbs. People can just sell you what they say is a mini pig. It is very hard to tell just how large a pig will get when you are buying a piglet and you are just listening to whatever the breeder tells you.

If parents are on site and grown then that is a bit different. You especially do not want to pay a premium for something and find out it is not what you expected.

A mini pig can weigh between 50 and 200 lbs depending on breed. That is a big difference. While 50-75 lbs is the size of a large dog, 200 lbs is heavier than the average person.

Shetland Sheep

This is our first little girl lamb of the year. She is a dark chocolate color that will probably lighten up as she gets older. She is pretty fluffy. Shetland lambs are 5-7 lbs when born.

The Shetland Sheep has been fairly easy to raise but we have learned our lesson about how big a rams horns can get. The ewes are naturally hornless which is nice but the Rams have horns that never stop growing.

The lambing is usually pretty darn easy. One minute they are pregnant and the next you have a dried off lamb jumping around. We had one bottle baby but that is an extremely rare thing. A lot of Shetland breeders have never had to bottle feed a lamb before. They can take a lot of foul weather too and they have the biggest variety of fleece colors of any sheep. Some colors are basically unheard of in the USA.

Clover the Shetland Sheep

This is a video of the lamb I raised on a bottle playing with one of our dogs. She is pretty much grown in this video. Shetlands are 24 inches or less at the shoulder in most cases.

Clover as a bottle baby lamb. Ruby Pearl, our Great Pyrenees watched over her a lot and cuddled her so she would sleep and not make a bunch of noise.
Clover just had her first lamb. This is Clover and the little ram a day or two after she gave birth. She likes to bounce with him.

The meat from Shetlands is good but I do advise butchering at no older than a year. On the other hand some people really like mutton so in that case you can butcher older. Lamb is better tasting to most people and more marketable if you decide to sell any meat on a small commercial level.

This pic was taken in the Fall a few years ago the day we got our first Shetlands.

Smaller goats

The size range of goats is amazing to me.  I used to raise Boer goats and they can be several hundred pounds if you have a big Billy goat. Then there is the Nigerian Dwarf and Pygmy that are smaller than a lot of dogs. Those that have small spaces can do well with a few little goats. I have to say that you do need a good fence for any type of goat. Sheep are easier to keep in a fence than a goat. One reason that we stopped raising goats is that they like to climb too much and do not respect fences as much as we would have liked. If you have a fence like chain link or the field fence that is labeled for goats, then you will do okay. You can always add an inexpensive electric wire to the top. One advantage of smaller goats is that even if they do jump a little they won’t we able to get over a standard size fence. Climbing can be prevented by using wire that is made with smaller spaces between wires so that animals like goats and sheep cannot climb. This wire is quite expensive so a lot of people just don’t buy it.

My Conclusion About Mini and Small Livestock

A lot of mini livestock is not worth the premium you pay for it and the hassle required for breeding. Naturally small breeds are different and usually don’t cost as much.

Cattle like Dexters or shorter legged Angus can work but it is still difficult. The Dexter can be bred to some other cows such as a Jersey bull at least.

Smaller heritage breeds of chickens like bantams are alright and people do quite well with them.

Full-sized and naturally small animals are usually a better deal in the long term if you have the space for them, but sometimes you need a specific size for a task and that changes things. Mini stock is very specialized and can cost twice as much or even more.

If you can manage full sized or naturally small stock, then that is going to serve you better. If you want the safest and easiest option as far as larger stock goes, I recommend the smaller sheep and not keeping a horned ram. You can dehorn a ram when young fairly easily and it is for the best. We have had plenty of horned animals and there have been some scary times. It is just not worth it unless you are serious about working an ox and need the horns to hold the yoke.

We like the smaller Shetland Sheep because they are short enough to eat underneath our grape vines so we don’t have to mow and weedeat as much. There may be a reason why a specific breed may work better for you than someone else.

Smaller livestock options that are not exotic or hard to find exist

Those with smaller farm and garden spaces are better off sticking to chickens, geese, ducks, and small sheep and goats that have been dehorned. Rabbits are another option for those that want to raise some meat and keep things small and easy to manage.

Here are a few posts from Backdoor Survival that may be helpful in choosing some small stock for your homestead.

How to Raise Backyard Quail: An Alternative to Raising Chickens

Best Meat Birds For The Small Producer

Best Chicken Breeds For Eggs

Backyard Chicken Alternatives: Should You Consider Raising Geese?

How to Raise Meat Rabbits in Small Spaces

Things to consider when buying any livestock

Age 

How many years can you expect an animal to be productive? Sheep for example, do not have as long a lifespan as goats or cattle. A middle-aged or older animal may be priced to sell but you need to consider if it is really worth the cost. On the other hand, buying an animal that is too young can result in a situation where you have to wait for more than a year before they can be bred. When we bought our Dexter calf, we got her for $750 instead of the $1,500 or more that a grown cow would have cost. We had to wait until she was 18 months old before she was bred and then you have to wait 9 months for calf to be born. If the calf is to be raised for beef you have another 12 months minimum to wait until butcher time to get a good size. We got our calf when she was 4 months old so it was roughly 3 years until we had a steer to butcher from the time we got her. That is a long time for people to wait. We were in our mid-20s and patient and we got a grown cow shortly after and raised some dairy steers too so that we had meat for the table.

Price vs pedigree

Some people put a higher value their animals than is fair or they may think that you have the money to spend. Animals from famous or registered breeding stock will cost more than pureblood stock that lacks these distinguishing features. If you just want some animals for meat, milk, or grazing then you don’t necessarily need to buy show quality stock. There is something to be said for starting out with good quality stock but that doesn’t mean you have to pay double.

If you are paying a premium, it can be nice to see parent animals. I strongly advise learning about a breed so you can know what to look for when you visit a breeder. If there are signs that the animal is not the purebred you were expecting, then move on.

There is also nothing wrong with hybrid animals. In fact, interesting crosses can be very good to have, you just don’t want to pay a purebred price for a hybrid animal.

How much pasture or space do you really have and what is the quality?

Your pasture capacity can vary a lot based on many factors. It is important to not over graze an area. Your climate is one of the biggest factors. Some people are shocked when they find out that there are areas where it is so dry that the stocking rate for a regular sized cow is 1 for every 40 acres or more! Where I live in North Carolina it is pretty lush and you can keep a cow calf pair on 2 acres or less depending on the breed.

Land can be improved over time with good management practices and that can increase how many animals you can keep in a given space. A pasture with a lot of overgrown weeds and briers looks like it has more food value than it does. Remember that you can start out with a lot of sheep and goats to get a place cleared initially and then sell or butcher the excess so that you do not overgraze.

Rotational grazing is helpful if you have the space. Even if you have an acre, splitting it into two different pasture areas can help you manage it better and prevent overgrazing and major soil compaction.

Do you have any experiences with mini livestock you would like to share with us? I look forward to your comments!

 

 

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Updated Jul 1, 2019
Published Apr 26, 2019

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