- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

BEULAH, Colo.

Looking for a good pet that also can provide a valuable source of nutrients for a healthy organic diet? Randy Engel of the Open Hearth Ranch in this southern Colorado community might just have the answer for you: a miniature cow.

Apart from being a conversation partner who never talks back, the miniature cow can offer just enough milk for your daily consumption, plus a little more to churn into butter, ice cream or make cheese.

In other words, it can add valuable variety to your diet.

Famous recluses such as J.D. Salinger, the acclaimed author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” who left New York for the New Hampshire woods in the early 1950s and has made few public appearances since, would have appreciated such valuable yet unobtrusive assistance.

Sometimes it’s difficult to spot the miniature cows behind the tall weeds outside the barn where they like to graze, but they are no taller than a Great Dane dog, but with heftier heads, bodies and necks.

“We now have 55 of them,” said Mr. Engel, trying to shoo a small group from the weeds and make them pose for pictures. “I can tell you their personality is just incredible. They are kind and gentle and very good with kids.”

It takes about an hour from a rural interstate exit to reach Mr. Engel’s ranch, at the foot of the picturesque Wet Mountains. A state highway, a county road and then a dirt pike wind along emerald meadows dotted with pine trees.

Just when you fear that you might share the fate of the Donner party, a group of pioneer settlers who got stranded and perished in the Sierra Nevada in the 1840s, several barns and a house come into view.

And it’s a lovely home, it turns out, thanks in large part to his herd of miniature cows.

Sweetness aside, the miniature cows are just a living incarnation of efficiency and indispensability, Mr. Engel explained.

A miniature cow, depending on the breed, can produce one to four gallons of milk a day, compared with eight to 10 gallons that a full-size Holstein can produce.

About half will be used to feed the calf, the rest can be milked into a cup.

Their upkeep costs just one-third of that to maintain a Holstein.

“We recommend a ratio of two per acre of pasture,” advised Richard H. Gradwohl, director of the International Miniature Cattle Breeders Society and Registry.

Mr. Gradwohl raises miniature cattle at his ranch in Covington, Wash.

“If you have that much land attached to your house, you should have no problem,” he said.

Purchase prices range from about $1,500 to about $5,500, but Mr. Engel insisted that no matter the buying price, the return will exceed the initial investment five or six times over a 10-year period.

“Most of it will come from selling calves,” he said. “And if you have several cows on your property, you can get a … tax break here in Colorado.”

Four cows on a ranch, he explained, can qualify for agricultural status, which shaves up to $3,000 off your property taxes.

They have not yet reached the level of popularity that aficionados would prefer. There are between 3,000 and 3,700 registered heads of miniature cattle of 26 different breeds currently in the United States, Mr. Gradwohl said.

But the herd is growing fast — about 20 percent a year — and the society estimates it will reach about 7,000 animals in five years.

The growth, owners insist, will be driven by increased demand for organic foods and the desire of many Americans to break from the concrete jungle of modern cities and establish themselves, at least on a part-time basis, outside city limits.

The move already has begun in some ways.

According to a profile of 2007 home buyers compiled by the National Association of Realtors, 66 percent of all real-estate purchases made during the past year were in suburban or rural areas, and only 32 percent in urban settings.

“Miniature cattle ownership is catching on, particularly in areas with small-acreage ranches,” noted Mr. Engel. “Those are mostly city dwellers, who move to live out here.”

A relaxed man with sharp business acumen, Mr. Engel thinks society is moving too fast, becoming too urbanized and too removed from its original roots.

The growing interest in organic food, he argued, could be part of an overall trend that will bring more people back to the ranching communities, and away from growth hormones, additives and processed foods.

And maybe, Mr. Engel pointed out, a miniature cow can help consolidate the trend.

Sure, they are more difficult than dogs to clean up after if you decide to take one out for a stroll. But look at the benefits, said Mr. Gradwohl.

“If your zoning laws allow, you can even have one in your back yard,” he said, with a laugh.

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