MAUZY, Va. (AP) — Farmers tend to think big.

The Bryan family thinks mini.

Tim and Debbie Bryan are making a mark in miniature cattle. They focus primarily on Miniature Herefords but have added Lowline Angus, their black Angus counterparts, to their mix. They've even crossbred the animals, producing a black-bodied, white-faced animal referred to as a "baldy."

It's no wonder the family minivan carries the license plate "LTL COWS."

What some might view as little more than a curiosity has proven to be a good business for the family.

Because the animals attract many different types of people and there are so few miniature cattle, Tim Bryan said he never lacks buyers. The farm website he set up drew 359,800 hits in its first year alone.

He sells 30 to 50 animals annually to clients from a wide area east of the Mississippi River. A farmer from Pennsylvania buys all his steers each year because the mini market is bigger up there.

"We sell out every year," he said, "without trying."

Most beef cattle are sold for meat or breeding or showing. The minis tap a fourth market. The miniatures weigh 700 to 1,000 pounds, according to the Miniature Hereford Breeders Association. That compares to typical Herefords, which weigh 1,200 to 1,800 pounds.

Bryan said he sold three young steers at a premium — $2,000 each — to a Florida woman who wanted to break them and keep them as pets. Herefords are known as a docile breed, and their size makes them easier to handle.

"Something unusual. That's what sells," said John Bryan, Tim's father. "Everybody remembers Herefords from when they were young."

Building A Herd

The Bryans got into the business in 2003, buying four miniature Herefords.

Tim said he'd always wanted to live on a farm, and he thought raising cattle would be good for his children but wanted smaller animals.

"We researched all the different breeds of the miniatures," Debbie Bryan said Saturday afternoon as she sat in her family's barn. "We talked to many different people and we kept coming back around to the Herefords because of their temperament and the beef side of them."

The Miniature Hereford Breeders Association also maintains a "true registry" of the animals, which Tim views as important because bloodlines can be traced for beneficial traits.

Neither Bryan was sure they'd made the correct decision right away, but watching a cow named "Twinkie" give birth to a calf named "Johnny Ringo" sealed the deal for Debbie.

"That was an exciting night at our house, watching that," she said. "That had me hooked, when Ringo was born."

Tim Bryan said he's bought minis from breeders all over the country, trying to get the right genetics to build a quality herd of unrelated animals. He's used artificial insemination to add new genetics, too, and once used embryo transplants to increase the number of "slim-lined" animals in his herd.

The Bryans have the largest mini Hereford herd in Virginia, he said, and perhaps on the East Coast.

Heifers are prized because many people want to buy animals to breed, the couple said, especially those with a limited amount of grazing land.

Because of their size, Tim Bryan said a farmer can raise about 12 miniatures on the same 5 acres that would support one regular Hereford. With the minis providing about 62 percent of the beef of a regular Hereford, they're better for meat production.

He added Lowline Angus to the herd four years ago because his father wanted to crossbreed them with the Herefords to produce baldys. His herd now includes 90 miniatures — 65 Herefords and 25 Angus — along with 15 regular Herefords used to highlight the size difference between the animals.

Size Matters

When brought to America from England, Tim Bryan said, Herefords were smaller than they are today. Farmers bred them to be bigger over the years, so they gradually got larger.

The move toward minis began in the 1960s, he said.

Their size makes the minis easier for him to manage with the help of a child or herd dog and easier for his children — 13-year-old Rachel, 11-year-old Allison and Landon, 6 — to show. Each began showing when they were 2.

Miniature Herefords are popular show animals nationally, he said, as the class draws the third-most entrants at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, trailing only regular black Angus and regular Herefords.

Often, though, there's no class devoted to minis, so the Bryan children have to show their animals against regular Herefords, which can be a disadvantage.

Rachel said a judge thought she'd brought a calf, not a mini, into the ring at a showmanship competition in Pennsylvania and told her it hurt her chances to win.

"They're just different," she said. "Not many people have them around here."

The miniatures produce tasty beef, too, Tim Bryan said. He's been paid $1.95 a pound for live animals bought for beef when regular Herefords were selling for $1.20 a pound.

A mini, Debbie Bryan said, fits in a freezer and can provide beef for a typical family for a year or more.

As breeding stock, minis command a premium. Tim Bryan said he's sold females for $2,500 to $4,500; regular Hereford heifers generally sell for $500 to $700.

Whether it's for beef or breeding or show or pets, Tim said he's found selling miniature Herefords to be easy and profitable.

"It started as a hobby but truly became a business," said Tim Bryan, who owns Bryan Tool & Machine Inc. just up the road from his farm. "It's a major part of us being able to pay for the farm, and the majority of the money we make goes into the kids' funds for college."

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Information from: Daily News-Record, http://www.dnronline.com