Miniature Cattle: More Beef for the Buck?

Miniature Cattle
Miniature Cattle

For the past fifty years or so, the American rancher took pride in breeding the largest cattle that could stand up on their own four legs. Super breeds emerged, some so big that many times cows died giving birth, and super-sized calves had to be strapped upright until their legs could develop enough strength to provide support for extra heavy bodies.

The theory was that one heavyweight steer would provide more beef per acre of grazing land and gallon of grain than smaller breeds.

Today, that philosophy is reversing itself. The skyrocketing cost of feed, fertilizer, and transportation make smaller breeds a net gain bargain instead of a curiosity raised mostly by gentlemen (and lady) farmers. Older, smaller breeds are being raised with exciting results, including less waste, fewer calving problems, and leaner overhead.

Nick?s Uncle takes a break beneath a Lassie prop.
Nick’s uncle takes a break beneath a Lassie prop.

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, according to the International Miniature Cattle Breeds Registry. (

Still, the down-sized animals represent a minor portion of the 94.5 million head of cattle in the U.S. this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But, like the trend toward buying locally-grown food and organic grub is growing by the day, so too is the return to smaller, leaner, healthier cattle breeds.

Nick Adams, along with his mother, owns and runs a 1,000-acre spread at Wardell in scenic Tazewell County, Virginia. They have years of experience raising the medium-sized, lean, and odd-looking Highland cattle.

Wilkipedia describes this ancient breed as follows: Highlands are known as a hardy breed due to the rugged nature of their native Scottish Highlands, with high rainfall and strong winds. They both graze and browse, and eat plants many other cattle avoid. The meat tends to be leaner than most beef, as highlands get most of their insulation from their thick shaggy hair rather than subcutaneous fat. The coat also makes them a good breed for cold Northern climates.

Scenes for the movie version of Lassie were filmed nearby and in the pub.
Scenes for the movie version of Lassie were filmed nearby and in the pub.

Nick has another word for them: tasty. Raised totally on grass with no steroids and a minimum of inoculations, the beef from the Wardell “highland bull” herd has a unique taste that harkens back to the days of fresh ground, hand-patted burgers fried in the pan over a coal- or wood-fired stove. Nick uses electric skillets, otherwise the nostalgia is thick and genuine. The only place in the region that such farm-to-table burgers are available is at the Highland Bull Pub, located a little north on Route 19 just past the Southwest Virginia Community College (turn right onto secondary road 609). The pub first opened in 1994 and is located in the hundred-year-old Wardell “world famous” ham store. The Highland Bull Pub also offers sandwiches from cured hams and a host of sides washed down with a wide variety of beverages and brews. The interior of the old wooden store is plastered with autographed dollar bills left behind by happy customers from Richlands to Australia. The store and a nearby wonderland of open space, twin mountains, and a bountiful valley known as “The Cove” were prominent locations for the movie Lassie.

For food and fun the Highland Bull Pub is hard to beat. Friday and Saturday night gatherings with the blare of old hit songs in the background combine blue and white collar customers, all sharing an appreciation for the surrounding mountains and the friendly atmosphere of a locally-owned and very laid back eatery. Highland Bull ground beef can also be purchased frozen for versatile and low-fat recipes at home.

Highland Bull Pub
Highland Bull Pub

The pub is open for lunch and supper Tuesday through Saturday and will soon be smoke-free due to legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly. Nick, a non-smoker, did not want to impose a smoking ban upon his long-time customers but opines that with almost all restaurants going that direction his place will do just fine. “I respect both sides of the debate, but it is hard to argue with clean air.”

He should add that it is also hard to argue with grass-fed, home-grown lean beef.

Contact info: 276-964-2125