THERE is nothing small about the miniature hereford's potential in the beef industry.
That's the opinion of Nathan Nixon and his family, who are building the foundations of a new cattle stud outside of Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.
The family believes the rise in the health-conscious consumer, an aging population and the tasty flavour of the mini hereford's smaller cuts of meat will lead them to securing high-end niche markets.
At the moment, their paddock-to-plate goal is still a little while away as the family of six has only just bought their first mob.
Nathan joked he had a "huge herd”.
"I have four heifers and I am about to pick a bull up soon, so soon there will be five,” he said.
Nathan currently works as an infrastructure asset and project manager in Wagga Wagga but has a strong background in agriculture.
His family once sheared up to 6000 merinos, cropped hundreds of hectares and ran commercial herefords in the southern Riverina on their 3000-hectare property.
"My wife and I were only young and had the opportunity to start out on our own by buying our own place, which we did,” he said.
"But we bought in two years prior to the big Millennium Drought hitting.
"So eventually we took the option to sell out. Basically it was uneconomically viable to stay there.”
The property sold in 2002 and the family moved to Wagga to buy a small block on the outskirts of the city.
Nathan's wife Melissa also grew up on a property located at Bogan Gate, near Forbes. Her family also ran herefords, so when the family saw an opportunity to gain a foothold back into the cattle industry they charged at the chance.
"We were just toying with the option of being more self-sufficient and so the idea of getting smaller cattle to run on our block was born,” he said.
"We went to Victoria and looked at some dexters, but we were not real impressed with them so we got to talking that night. It was actually said as a joke. One of us asked the question, 'I wonder if there are any mini herefords?'.
"So we looked online and, low and behold, we found Julie Stott's Australian Miniature Hereford website at O'Connell, NSW. We were hooked on them straight away.”
After deciding herefords were the breed for them, the family sought and purchased three head from Winswood Miniature Hereford Stud in Woodside North, Victoria for the foundation stock to their Carrington Park Miniature Polled Hereford Stud located in Wagga Wagga.
The minis do not require any special infrastructure to accommodate their small size and at the moment Nathan just works his cattle through a set of home-made sheep yards.
"Basically they are no different to any other cattle. They are easier to handle because they are smaller,” he said.
"Our kids have horses as well, so I use our float to move them about, you just place a biscuit of hay at the end and they lead straight on.
"The minis are the original size from when they were exported to America many hundreds of years ago from Herefordshire in England.
"The current herefords you see today are the result of crossbreeding these little guys with long leg breeds such as limousin or santa gertrudis. They do not have a dwarf gene breed into them like some of the other small breeds and have none of the associated problems like difficult calving.”
As a dad, Nathan said it was rewarding to watch his kids work with the little cattle and gain confidence and experience without the risk of being injured that larger cattle posed.
"Two out of the three heifers we purchased were not halter broken,” he said.
"My girls put halters on them and played with them for maybe two to three hours a day over about three weekends.
"Due to their docile nature they became nice and quiet extremely quickly and so we took them to the Harden All Breeds Cattle Camp, where they attracted considerable attention from other participants.
"The little cattle behave themselves really well.
" You can walk up to them in the middle of the paddock and scratch their back, they are really docile.”
The herefords had a "laidback-hippie kind of attitude”, Nathan said.
This serves them well as the charming cattle cause a fuss with onlookers wherever they go.
"They do catch people's eye as they have a cuteness factor I guess, especially the calves.”
Cuteness aside, the flavour characteristics of their beef will put the breed in good stead.
"Our end goal is setting up a paddock-to-plate market,” he said.
"To approach the high-end restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne.”
Nathan said the decision to invest in a smaller breed came to him when he was served a sizable counter meal at a hotel one night.
"I am generally a large eater but the steak was that big it was falling over the edge of the plate, and the plate wasn't small either.
"I couldn't eat it all. I felt it was a waste of money and a waste to the animal's life. And nowadays with everyone being so health conscious and watching their portion control, I think there will be an opening there.
"You can come home and grab one of the mini's roast beef, pop it in the oven and it will cook in the same time as a lamb roast as they are a similar size.”
Nathan also agreed Australia's aging population would mean there soon would be more seniors looking for an affordable, smaller cut of beef. Commercially, the cattle yielded more meat per kilo as they had less bone, he said.
"And you get the same price per kilo as big cattle while having the ability to run two head of minis to every one head of their larger cousins; it just seems to be a no brainer to go for the little guys.”
BIG HISTORY FOR LITTLE BREED
This year marks the 20th anniversary since the first live shipment and frozen genetics of miniature herefords.
The minis trace their foundation to the US, where R. Rust Largent Jr bucked the US fad of breeding cattle with extreme frame scores, and made the decision in 1970 to continue with the stocky, easy-doing small herefords. His son Roy diversified into miniatures to cater for the rising popularity of small acreage farms.
The first true miniature hereford was born in 1981, LS Real MT 3, with most modern cattle able to trace their lineage back to this bull. Worldwide interest quickly grew once the first private treaty sale of miniature herefords was held in 1989. Today, miniature herefords are full blood herefords and are registered through Herefords Australia. They are about 30-50% of the size of traditional cattle, with conformation and breed characteristics being the same.
Stud breeders can belong to two national associations, the Australian Miniature Hereford Breeders Network or the Australian Miniature Hereford Cattle Association.
Australian Miniature Hereford Breeders Network president Julie Stott said registered cattle numbered about 300, with most herds ranging from a few head to 20-30.
"It has been a bumpy ride with growth in the early years followed by a plateau, and national herd reduction during the drought,'' Ms Stott said.
But, numbers are rebuilding with a growing interest from peri-urban and small lot farmers, especially the baby boomer generation retiring onto acreage. Poll genetics are favoured by the small lot farmers for ease of management
"Generally, mature cows are around 39 inches (97.5cm),” she said.
Ms Stott, who was among the first to import frozen embryos from the US in 1997, said stud heifers generally sold for $1500-$2000 and bulls from $3500.
She said a lack of volume had restricted the miniature herefords from supplying a boutique branded beef product. The majority of cattle are bought and sold on-line with steers either retained as "lawn mowers'' or sold into the physical auction market.
"I sell my steers at the Carcoar saleyards, where they receive the same cents per kilogram as the regular herefords but are obviously a lighter weight,'' Ms Stott said.
"Other people use mobile butchers to process their steers on-farm.
"Weaning weights of steers is around 150kg live,” she said. To cater for buyers with little or no background in livestock production, the network provides a comprehensive information pack on cattle and pasture management.
- Adult miniature cows cannot be taller than 119cm at the hip and a bull not taller than 124cm.
- The cattle are judged in a similar manner, good bone structure, depth, functionality, soundness and carcass quality - but must be frame score one or less at age three.
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