Minicows

Science, technology, and life.
June 19 2009 8:49 AM

Minicows

A few weeks ago, I noticed an article in the Los Angeles Times about " minicows ." "In the last few years, ranchers across the country have been snapping up mini Hereford and Angus calves that fit in a person's lap," wrote reporter P.J. Huffstutter. "Today, there are more than 300 miniature-Hereford breeders in the U.S., up from fewer than two dozen in 2000. And there are about 20,000 minicows, compared with fewer than 5,000 a decade ago ..."

Huffstutter explains the animals' virtues. Mini-Herefords "consume about half [the feed] of a full-sized cow yet produce 50% to 75% of the rib-eyes and fillets, according to researchers and budget-conscious farmers," he notes. "Farmers who raise mini Jerseys brag how each animal provides 2 to 3 gallons of milk a day." Grass-fed minicows also "reached their mature weight faster, so they could be sold for meat sooner."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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I was all set to write about minicows as the latest human manipulation of animal genetics. Then I realized that I had it backward. According to Huffstutter:

Minicows are not genetically engineered to be tiny, and they're not dwarfs. They are drawn from original breeds brought to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800s that were smaller than today's bovine giants, said Ron Lemenager, professor of animal science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. ... Big cows emerged as a product of the 1950s and '60s, when farmers were focused on getting more meat and didn't fret as much about the efficient use of animal feed or grasslands. "Feed prices were relatively cheap, and grazing lands were accessible," Lemenager said. "The plan was to get more meat per animal. But it went way too far. The animals got too big and eat so much."

In a way, this makes minicows even more fascinating. We did manipulate cows' genes for our purposes. We adapted them to our environment: plentiful land and feed. But then our environment changed. It became better suited to natural cows—or, more accurately, cows that were the product of human manipulation up to a century ago—than to the artificial cows of the last 50 years. So artifice unraveled itself. We went back to the original gene pool. Except that now, having becoming used to oversized 20th-century cows, we call the modern offspring of their ordinary-sized predecessors "minicows."

Cows aren't the only animals we can shrink. Two years ago, when parents of a disabled girl "attenuated" her growth through surgery and hormones, I argued that

economic and ecological forces are going [that] way. Smaller people consume fewer resources, live longer , and are cheaper to transport. They can fit in a Hyundai . Forty-five years ago, if you were 6 feet tall, you couldn't fly in a NASA space capsule . Now, you can barely fly coach. Blessed are the short, for they shall inherit the earth.

That's certainly the argument for minicows. They fit the latest "trend in farm efficiency—the move to ranchettes, smaller operations run by families or small groups of workers," Huffstutter writes. Today's ecology and economics demand smaller livestock.

The same is true of people. We're getting too fat for our planet . Many of us no longer fit old-fashioned toilets, ambulances, or coffins . Yet we've become so accustomed to our new size that only 15 percent of obese people now recognize themselves as obese. Fearing the economic consequences, governments around the world are groping for measures to restore us to our previous size . If they succeed, I wonder what we'll call the thin people of tomorrow. Minihumans, anyone?