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.

Advertisement

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?

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 16 2014 4:08 PM More Than Scottish Pride Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 5:07 PM One Comedy Group Has the Perfect Idea for Ken Burns’ Next Project
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.