Miniature Zebu cattle: good things do come in small packages.
There are two kinds of cattle--the Aurochs (Bos taurus) that originated in Europe and from which most breeds in America today descended, and the Zebu cattle (Bos indicus) of Asia, India and Africa. The latter are often hump-backed with long, droopy ears. They evolved in a warm climate and have more heat tolerance and insect resistance than European cattle. Zebu were probably some of the earliest domesticated, possibly as long ago as 6,000 B.C.
Miniature Zebu originated in Southern India, where they are called Nadudana, or "small cattle." They are the oldest breed of miniature cattle and possibly the only natural one; they became small through thousands of years of isolation rather than being bred down from full size animals--like most of the miniature cattle and horses in existence today. No one knows for sure how these Zebus became so small, but it may be due to the fact that they were stranded on an archipelago (a group of islands) off the coast of India--where environment and inbreeding may have been factors in their becoming smaller and smaller in size.
Today the typical miniature bull weighs 400 to 600 pounds and the females 300 to 400 pounds. These cattle have a pronounced hump (like a Brahman) but the hump of the female is smaller than the male. They have long tails and moderate size horns, which may point forward, down or backward, and their ears are a little bit more erect (less pendulous) than those of a Brahman. Miniature Zebus come in a variety of colors including gray, white, spotted, black or red, with a sleek, short hair coat. The neck and shoulders of many of the mature bulls may be nearly black. Calves usually weigh 18 to 22 pounds at birth.
To be classified as a true miniature in today's registries, an individual must not be taller than 42 inches (3.5 feet), measured at a spot directly behind the hump. Actual height is not recorded on the registration papers until the animal has reached full growth at about three years of age. Most breeders prefer to have them no taller than 34 to 38 inches and some strive to have them even smaller. One thing breeders need to know is that these small cattle are slow to mature. The smaller the animal, the longer it takes to reach puberty. Most miniature Zebu heifers do not breed until they are nearly two years old and most of them don't give birth to their first calves until about 30 to 36 months of age.
A few of these tiny cattle were brought to the United States for the first time in 1893 for the Chicago World's Fair. Later imports went to various zoos. In the 1920's a few were imported for several zoological gardens. Eventually a few people began breeding them, and registries were formed. The International Miniature Zebu Association was established in 1991. These cattle are relatively easy to care for, requiring less grazing area than larger animals, and they do not need grain or alfalfa. Being a tropical species, they tolerate warm climates very well, but need shelter in a cold climate.
Rosemary Meding and her husband Steve at Shell Creek Ranch, near Punta Gorda, Florida, have been raising miniature Zebu for 10 years. Their 65-acre ranch includes 25 acres of tangerine orchards with 4,000 trees. They can graze the orchards with their tiny cattle, since these small animals do not damage trees like larger cattle would--which enables the Medings to grow a double crop (cattle and fruit) on their ranch.
The Medings had experience with other cattle before they moved to their present ranch. Rosemary had dairy cattle in New Hampshire and Steve raised beef cattle in Florida. After they were married and living at Shell Creek, Rosemary happened to see a photo of a miniature Zebu posted in a feed store. She researched these unique animals and was intrigued. She and Steve purchased three miniatures from the Komoko Ranch (Newberry, Florida).
Now they have 25, all named (Travis, Peter Pan, Lexius, Lil Zorro Toro, Charley, Lightning Jack, Lucy, Bubbles, Rainman, etc.) and loved as members of the family. One of Rosemary's favorites, named Tarus, will be in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest bull ever, according to Rosemary. This young bull is now close to his maximum mature height and stands only 26 inches tall.
These tiny cattle are very intelligent but also very shy. In their wild habitat they were prey animals and survived by running away from danger. They have to be trained to trust people. "They need a lot of handling, from the time they are born," says Rosemary. "They can be wilder than deer if you don't do this. I touch them and start working with them as they are being born, and most of their mamas tolerate this because I raised them, too. If you don't start right at the beginning, they are harder to handle," she explains.
"People are amazed that I can bring some of my Zebus into my house on a lead rope, and they think that all you need to do is feed them a little bit and they'll come right to you. But they don't. These are not just cute little cuddly animals. They can be, but they have to be pushed into this--by being constantly exposed to love and care from people. I spend hours on a little stool, hugging and loving and rubbing the calves, and building their trust and confidence," says Rosemary.
"I do not use food treats to win them over. This just spoils them and they become demanding, rooting around you for their treat. They behave better if you never use food treats." She says there's a lot of psychology involved in raising these animals. She halter breaks them as babies and ties each one up regularly. This teaches them to become submissive and patient. Her cattle live in separate pastures (young bulls in one group, cows in another, weaned calves in another). When she feeds them, the dominant animals in each group are tied up so the more timid ones get their share of the food.
Their "schooling" starts at about two weeks after they are born. For about 15 minutes a day, she works with each calf, with the mother watching nearby. She sits on a stool, with the calf on a halter, and massages and pets the calf. "They like to have the brisket area massaged, and to be scratched behind the ears. Rubbing this area stimulates release of endorphins and makes them feel good," explains Rosemary. She brushes and massages each call getting it relaxed and accepting, before trying to teach it to lead.
As the calf gets older, and its mother becomes less worried, she extends the time she works with the call getting it used to people, dogs, children, walking on a leash, riding in a golf cart or even pulling a cart. The calves become more independent from morn and gain acceptance of the human. This handling produces calm, relaxed animals that enjoy being with people--seeking human attention rather than wanting to run away. The young animals she handles are ready to become show cattle or wonderful pets for new owners.
She uses llama halters for her miniature Zebus. Their heads and muzzles are too small for cattle or horse halters. "A weanling size llama halter fits a two- to three-month-old Zebu very nicely," explains Rosemary. She halters her calves at about one week of age and leaves a well-fitted halter on them at all times. She can then snap a lead onto it whenever she works with one of them.
She registers the calves with both the International Miniature Zebu Association and the American Miniature Zebu Association. "I sell my miniature Zebus to approved homes only, and I never sell just one," says Rosemary. They are herd animals and would be insecure and unhappy without a buddy. "I would rather give away a steer to go along as a companion for a heifer someone wants to buy, than sell a single animal."
Having them "people" oriented and at ease in all situations paid off in August 2004 when Hurricane Charlie hit the Punta Gorda area. The Medings put all their miniature Zebus in their horse barn for shelter. There wasn't quite enough space, so three heifers were camped in the feed room and one small bull calf (Zorro Toro) waited out the hurricane in the house under the dining room table--with chairs all around the table to keep him fenced in.
Some of the advantages of these small cattle over traditional beef animals is that it takes less land and fencing to raise them, and they are safer for children to handle--and easier to confine and handle for any type of treatment. Breeders have a number of markets, selling the cattle as pets, breeding stock, junior rodeo stock and show cattle. They make perfect easy-to-handle show animals for young 4-H kids, and a growing number of rodeo contractors are using miniature Zebu bulls for junior rodeo events. Young contestants prefer to ride a miniature bull that looks like a Brahman, rather than just riding calves from full-size cattle.
Probably 70 percent of these animals today are being sold as pets or "lawn mower" pasture ornaments for people who have small acreages, though some people also raise them as beef for the family freezer or for milking. The average miniature Zebu cow will produce about a gallon of milk per day that is high in butterfat. Other characteristics that attract fans to this breed include their longevity (living more than 20 years, with good care), fly resistance and heat tolerance.
More information about miniature Zebus can be found on the Shell Creek Ranch website at www.miniaturezebus.com or the International Miniature Zebu Association website at www.imza.name or the American Miniature Zebu Association website at www.americanminiaturezebuassociation.org