Never judge an animal by its size. Many small livestock breeds can still work for their living. They till the land, spread manure on fields and provide ample meat, milk, fleece and eggs for the average family on a far smaller acreage.
Plus, small and miniature livestock breeds do it all for less feed and water. And they produce less waste than their larger equivalents. You really can’t get much better than that.
Let’s take a look at some of the small breeds that prove that bigger isn’t always better!
Ireland also gave us a small cattle breed. In fact, the Dexter is the smallest of all cow breeds in Europe. As with so many of the miniature breeds (though Dexters aren’t minis—they’re in fact the smallest, non-miniature breed of cow), these hardy, dual-purpose animals provide excellent beef and milk.
Calving problems are rare, and they’re long-lived.
Their low weight also makes them easier on the land. This prevents damage, especially in wetter areas.
The Dexter is primarily a beef breed. Calves grow fast, maturing in 12 to 18 months as finished beef. Dexter cows also give more milk for their body weight than any other breed.
There’s a growing interest in these small, gentle cattle because they require less feed than other breeds. And yet they can thrive in a variety of climates.
Dexters come in three solid colors: black (predominant), dun and red. Not only are these cattle efficient in beef and milk production, but their small size and good temperament make Dexters nice to have around.
Calves weigh about 45 pounds at birth. When they are weaned at about 7 months, they weigh between 350 and 500 pounds. A mature cow weighs between 600 and 700 pounds. Bulls tip the scales at about 1,000 pounds.
Both sexes will continue to grow until 5 or 6 years of age, and their average lifespan is more than 20 years. They are known for their ease of calving and continue to calve until age 16 to 18.
Babydoll Southdown Sheep
The North American Babydoll Southdown Sheep Association refers to the diminutive breed as “charming creatures” because of their dispositions and adorable appearance. The polled (hornless) breed originated in England and was improved upon in the late 1700s by John Ellman.
Ewes make excellent mothers, often producing multiples. Ewes, and the more masculine-looking rams, reach heights of 18 to 24 inches. Babydoll Southdowns sport sought-after springy fleece, with natural loft, in shades of off-white or black (fades to shades of brown and gray) that one can spin into luxurious fiber.
Thanks to being easy-keepers, with a small size and docile temperament, the breed is often raised as a pet or used in 4-H projects, remaining active and sound for 8 to 10 years or longer.
Babydoll Southdowns make excellent foragers and many employ them to keep grass trimmed and weeds down.
Nigerian Dwarf Goat
If you like the thought of small goat breeds but still wish to milk, then maybe take a look at the Nigerian Dwarf. The American Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Association and its skilled breeders have done a truly remarkable job in producing and refining this extremely useful goat breed.
They are elegant looking animals—perfect dairy goats in miniature!
This caprine breed originated in West Africa and resembles a small version of large dairy goat breeds. Height in does is between 17 to 22 1/2 inches, with averages at 21 1/2. Bucks top height is 23 1/2 inches, averaging 23.
Both does and bucks boast soft coats with short to medium hair in a number of color combinations, including black, chocolate, Dalmatian (black-and-white spotted), and gold and white.
But it isn’t all about looks. This gentle little goat is already renowned for its milk that’s celebrated for its high butterfat content. These dwarves are also extremely friendly, hardy and thrive in almost any climate.
They’re perfect for the beginner, as a pet or used in 4-H projects.
As adults, Harlequins are miniature sheep with ewes weighing from 80 to 120 pounds and rams weighing 90 to 150 at maturity.
At this weight, they can be ideal for children, teens, seniors and everyone in between.
Being naturally polled (hornless), keepers don’t need to worry about serious injury. Additionally, Harlequins produce fine, medium-staple length wool highly desired by spinners and fiber artists.
This mini is a hardy breed that requires little more than good grazing land, fresh water, shelter and predator protection. They are easy lambers, often having multiples over many years. Ewes are attentive mothers, rarely requiring assistance when giving birth.
Despite being relatively rare, Harlequins are affordable. If you are considering them to obtain or maintain an ag exemption on your land, or purchasing for your kids or grandkids as a 4-H or FFA project, you’ll find they’re truly worth their weight in gold due to their versatility on the farm, in your yard or in the show ring.
In fact, Steve Williams showed the first Harlequin sheep at the Great State Fair of Texas in 2017, where they placed first, second and third! Williams then went on to show at the world-famous Houston Stock Show, garnering two Reserve Champion titles.
This small cattle breed was the result of an Australian research project carried out by the Trangie Research Centre. Aberdeen Angus were initially imported from Canada in 1929, with additional imports brought over from the U.S. and U.K. The research focused upon growth rate versus profitability, and three separate herds were established:
- one with a high rate of growth in their first year (High Line)
- one with a low rate of growth (Low Line)
- a control group (Control Line)
The experiment ran for 19 years, by the end of which, the Low Line animals were 30 percent smaller than the High Line group.
But don’t call these beautiful bovines dwarves. American Aberdeen cattle don’t carry the dwarfism gene that so many other small breeds do. This means even first-time heifers usually calve easily.
They are a naturally docile breed and easily handled so they’re perfect for small acreage.
Farmer Brady Haynes from Colorado is new to American Aberdeens. What drew him to the breed is the idea of efficiency.
“More beef per acre is the whole point,” he says. “The other thing is the fact that they marble on grass. They’ve been bred to fatten on grass. That was their whole point—no corn, no soy or anything.
“High-quality meat on marginal rations is efficient. Efficiency is what helps the environment.”
Shetland sheep boast a wide range of colors and soft wool, excellent meat, small size, disease resistance and ability to take good care of themselves.
Small, hardy and long-lived, Shetlands have retained primitive survival instincts. Ewes typically lamb unassisted, and lambs are quick to gain their feet and start nursing.
Some can shed fleece (called rooing), which is easily plucked by hand.
Shetlands typically breed in season. In the northern areas of North America, this starts in October and November for lambs born in spring.
Twins are common, with newborns weighing between 4 and 7 pounds.
Rams weigh from 90 to 125 pounds; ewes 75 to 100 pounds. Rams possess spiraled horns. Ewes are typically polled.
Shetlands have a dished face, and good width between medium-sized ears carried above the horizontal, and expressive eyes. The characteristic fluke-shaped tail is naturally short and doesn’t require docking.
Shetlands come in 11 different colors with 30 distinct marking patterns. Colors range from white to grays to black, and from light to dark brown.
Single-coated Shetlands typically have soft, downy wool, with a lot of crimp with a staple of about 2 to 4 inches. Double-coated Shetlands have fleece ranging from 6 to as much as 10 inches. The outer coat is more hairlike, while the undercoat is soft. The outer coat serves as a protective layer against harsh weather.
A third type of fleece (intermediate) is now the most common type. Length ranges from 4 to 6 inches. All three types of fleece should be consistent front to back, with a very soft handle.
Their small stature makes Shetlands easy to handle and keep on small acreage. Even novice shepherds can use Shetlands to produce exquisite wool, delicious meat and quality breeding stock. The breed association provides support.
Have you ever fancied keeping pigs but are put off by their intimidating size, rooting behaviors and possible destruction of fencing? Well, look no further than the truly delightful Kunekune!
This very special porcine hails from New Zealand and was originally bred by the Maoris. Although it’s undeniably cute, this little piggy is more useful than its Disney-like looks first suggest.
They’re docile, easily handled and extremely friendly animals, and they’re also cost-effective to keep. Unlike most pig breeds, these small animals like to graze. They’ll certainly keep an orchard clear of all fallen fruit and, being grass-fed, they produce the most wonderful high-quality compost that can be used to enrich the soil throughout the farmstead.
And yes, Kunekune can, of course, also be eaten! In a time when producers are looking for responsible/sustainable ways to provide meat for the family, the Kunekune is the standout choice for small acreage pork production. This mid-sized, lard-type heritage hog has been applauded for its delicious, red, well-marbled meat and flavorful fat.
Many call this the best pig for charcuterie, and chefs clamor to put the breed on their menus.
They aren’t prone to root or roam, and their size, temperament and ease of keeping make them perfect for most farms, from urban to rural. Farmers for the breed are in demand to increase availability of Kunekune Pedigree Pork in the U.S. and Canada.
American Guinea Hog
This little black pig is likely derived from the Essex Pig, which was immensely popular when first imported into the U.S. from England in the 1820s. Although small (ranging from a third to half the size of a regular hog), this isn’t a dwarf breed so it has very few problems when breeding.
The sows make excellent mothers, producing four to eight piglets. And given their small size, they don’t require farrowing crates.
They’re solid black with large pricked ears and a straight or very slightly dished snout. Described as a true miniature pig, Guineas are proportionate in stature, unlike the potbellied pig, which is a dwarf.
With a docile disposition, they make an excellent homestead pig. Historically, Guinea Hogs foraged for their own food, eating rodents and other small animals, grass, roots and nuts, and cleaning out garden beds.
They produce hams, bacon and lard.
The sweet, buttery-tasting pork is extremely moist and tender. On average, you can expect to harvest up to 65 percent of the live hog weight when choosing more traditional cuts.
Katahdins make hardy, low-maintenance meat animals and produce excellent lamb crops throughout their long productive lives. The lambs yield a lean, mild-tasting carcass that holds appeal for specialty markets. These adaptable sheep are also useful in land management and cross-breeding programs.
Although this breed’s name sounds quite exotic, the Katahdin hair sheep actually originated on a farm in north-central Maine run by Michael and Barbara Piel. An amateur geneticist and avid livestock raiser, Michael Piel had initially looked into utilizing sheep to graze power lines and for other forms of land management.
However, his focus later shifted to the development of a meat sheep that wouldn’t require shearing. In the early 1970s, Piel picked about 120 of his finest ewes and named them after the highest mountain in Maine, Mount Katahdin.
The Ossabaw Island Hog
This small, feral-looking, heavy-coated and bristly breed descend from swine that Spanish explorers left off the coast of Georgia on Ossabaw Island almost 400 years ago. Unlike the Guinea, they come in a rainbow of colors. These pigs have long snouts, heavy shoulders and prick ears fringed with long hair.
Harsh weather conditions and food availability has naturally reduced its size. Some individuals weigh little more than 25 pounds. Their maximum height is around 20 inches.
Critically endangered, a small number are now kept by farmers throughout the country who celebrate their ability to fatten on grazing, roots and bark and yet still produce smaller cuts of well-marbled, juicy meat.
Ossabaw Island Hogs are hardy, self-sufficient pigs that like their own space. For anyone wanting land cleared, long-snouted Ossabaw Island hogs are peerless rooters.
Africa is the home to about a quarter of the world’s goat population, and a wide variety of different types flourish throughout this vast continent. Dwarf breeds are common from Senegal to the center as far as Southern Sudan.
As a child, I kept several of these adorable animals. I can attest to the fact that they make wonderful pets.
As the Pygmy’s name suggests, this goat breed is petite, with a height of just 16 to 23 inches and weighing in at 60 to 80 pounds (about the size of a large dog).
Their animated nature makes Pygmy goats popular pets. But the breed also has a place on the farm. Females produce excellent milk that can be used in cheese-making.
Does are strong breeders. Their first breeding typically occurs between 12 and 18 months, and after a five-month gestation period, does can bear one to four kids every year. Kids are fully weaned around 3 months of age.
Like other breeds, the small goats are social and do best in a herd atmosphere. They are active and need ample space for exercise.
Miniature Mediterranean Donkey
My mom is a huge fan of the Miniature Donkey. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this long-eared diminutive equine?
This lovable little donkey originally came from Sardinia and Sicily. Today, it’s almost extinct on its native islands, so we have American breeders to thank for its preservation.
Now, I get that they are completely adorable. But I have in the past asked my mom, “What are they really good for?” She soon put me right.
“Firstly, and probably most important of all, they make truly wonderful pets. And because of their small size and very reliable, gentle temperaments, they are particularly good for children. They are also excellent for those who would like to keep the larger equines but simply can’t because of lack of means, space or maybe those whose health/age now doesn’t allow them to manage the larger animals. The larger minis can be used for driving, and they can also be ridden, with supervision, by small children.”
Miniature Mediterranean Donkeys also make good therapy animals, and pack burro racing is becoming popular.
Sidebar: Tiny Turkeys
I adore turkeys and have kept and bred numerous varieties, my favorite being the Buff. Now, we are all familiar with bantams and of course the smaller duck breeds, but what about a miniature turkey?
The Beltsville Small White was created in the 1930s in Beltsville, Maryland, to create a bird that would fit apartment refrigerators. In 1941, this small turkey was released to the public, and by the 1950s, farmers were raising millions of them.
Its fall from grace was just as fast as its meteoric rise. Although considered a fine bird for family use, the hotel/restaurant trade demanded a larger, meatier bird from which they could obtain more slices of meat. By the 1970s, the Beltsville Small White was facing extinction.
Today, it’s still incredibly rare. The Beltsville has numerous plus points over its larger, broader-breasted brethren. It has excellent reproductive qualities, and unlike many breeds, it can mate naturally.
The Beltsville is also perfect for the smaller family, especially one that actively wants to avoid waste. Mature toms weigh in at 21 pounds; hens, 12.
Sidebar: Mini Milker
Another miniature cow that is provoking a whole lot of interest is the Miniature Jersey. This beauty, like the standard Jersey, is first and foremost a milk cow. They produce on average between 1 1⁄2 to 3 gallons of milk a day.
Of course, this is far less than the standard size but more than enough for the average family. They come with all the positive traits miniatures bring: being able to be kept on a smaller acreage, requiring less feed and being easy to handle.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.