My fantasies of miniature-cattle ownership are simple and pure. I dream of taking my cow to the grocery store on a harness so she can peruse the low-hanging greens, of going to the dog park and pretending I don’t know she’s not a dog, and, finally, of my cow toppling a home intruder by ramming him in the back of the knees, then dancing on him with her little hooves until help arrives.

Miniature cattle are booming in popularity, in part because of what rancher Erin Doguet calls a “social media frenzy.” (Indeed, I developed an algorithmic crush on mini cows after watching TikTok videos on an account titled @minimooos, whose owner calls them “pasture puppies.”) Buyers range from those who just have large backyards to ranchers seeking distinctive livestock. And, Doguet adds, more buyers are recognizing the demand and starting breeding operations of their own. “They’re trying to get in on the market as it is now: they’re adorable; they’re easy to sell,” Doguet says. “You see a lot of these online auctions, and some of them are going to forty, fifty, sixty, seventy thousand dollars.”

The term “miniature,” when applied to a cow, does not mean “small enough to pick up and cuddle like a shih tzu.” The animals generally range from 36 inches tall at the hip (microcattle) to 48 inches (midsize). That’s much smaller than regular cattle, which generally grow to about 62 inches, but you still don’t want a mini cow to vault into your lap.

Buyers seek them out for beef and milk, to start their own breeding  businesses, and for agricultural tax exemptions, as some landowners do with bees. Often, miniature cows are purchased as pets: an emotional reaction to watching a mini cow gambol through a field on TikTok very quickly turns into an urgent need to have one’s own. But not everyone is prepared to handle a cow, even a lil’ one.

Miniature cows at Paisley's Pasture
Breeder Erin Doguet’s daughter, Paisley, at Paisley’s Pasture.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

That’s why Amanda Darnell Homann, who breeds miniature cows on her ranch in the East Texas town of Jacksonville, typically requires first-time buyers to meet some fully grown minis before putting down a deposit. “I don’t want them to come pick it up when it’s six months old and go, ‘Well, that’s not what I thought it would be,’ ” says Amanda, who owns Oliver Miniature Acres with her husband, Chris. The ranch is one of at least sixty mini-cattle operations that have popped up across the state over the past few years.

The first mini I see as I arrive is lapdog-size. It’s a black calf that has planted itself next to a dirt lane leading from the road to the house. It raises its head as if to say hello when I jostle by in my car. Now I understand why buyers must see fully grown cows. I cannot imagine this calf ever not being as tiny as it is now. Whatever cognitive dissonance prevents me from accepting that a tiny Saint Bernard puppy will ever weigh 150 pounds is in full effect here.

I park and greet Amanda and Chris, then change into hiking boots. Amanda, in a farm flex, wears sandals, admitting that they’re her chosen ranch footwear unless it’s freezing or the fire ants are getting to her. She is calm and capable: besides tending to the cattle, she is also a sonographer at a local hospital, a mother of two boys, and an excellent quilter. She and I pile into a utility vehicle to meet some of the big girls.

Miniature cows at Paisley's Pasture
Miniature cattle at Paisley’s Pasture, in Pipe Creek.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

We trundle through thickets of trees on the forty-acre property. We’re headed to a meadow where, Amanda tells me over the din of the UTV, I’ll be able to see some of her cattle at leisure. She bought her first minis in 2012, for the most practical of reasons. “I bought them initially to raise my own beef,” she says, explaining that her mother, a fellow rancher, had cut off her free supply of meat. Amanda didn’t want full-size cows. Miniatures are more manageable, and even with their small stature, one miniature cow might provide meat for a family of four for six months. “But I wasn’t gonna eat the heifers, so I thought I’d sell them. Turns out there’s a good deal in that.” Now the Homanns have 21 females, each with her own name and personality.

The Homanns have sold out of their livestock every year since they began breeding. During the economic uncertainty of the early pandemic, Amanda worried that buyers wouldn’t be financially able or willing to acquire miniature cows anymore. Instead, demand only increased. Amanda hypothesizes that Texans were tired of paying for beef in the grocery store and, trapped at home with their kids, had a glut of time—time that could be spent tending mini livestock.

When we reach the meadow, several members of the Homanns’ herd are grazing in the golden-hour light. Amanda parks the UTV a few feet away and hops out. The nearest cow is a little over waist-height next to Amanda, who is five foot four. Eve Elena is a full-grown Hereford, with a smooth, reddish body and a white face framed by curly bangs atop long white lashes. Amanda approaches her and begins to scratch behind her ears. Eve Elena clearly recognizes her—she is bolder in her affections with Amanda than she is with me—but when I scratch her in the same place, she seems content.

At one point, Amanda briefly stops petting the cow, who looks indignant and confused for a second before forcibly nuzzling the back of Amanda’s legs until she resumes petting her again. The move is touchingly canine. Still, I’m surprised by Eve Elena’s size. My fantasy of an indoor mini cow quickly unspools.

Miniature cows at Paisley's Pasture
Jane and her calf, Stella, at Paisley’s Pasture.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

Even the smallest cows in the Homanns’ herd don’t register as mini the way, say, a miniature dachshund might. Still, Amanda tells me they’re much more manageable than full-size cows, and gentler with people. “They’re a little intimidated because they’re like this big,” she says, deterring Eve Elena with a soft, adept shove. “They’re a lot less scary, but they could hurt you just as much, should they choose to.”

Back at the house, Chris hollers for the herd, shaking a bucket full of feed pellets. At first, the cows stand still, suspicious, awaiting proof that he actually has treats. Then they all advance at once, mooing in chorus. They crowd the fence, and Chris, tall and lanky, jumps in and begins handing out pellets, each the size and length of a tube of Rolos. Amanda and I feed them to the cows through the fence while Chris fills a trough. The cows happily suck the pellets from our hands into slobbery, jellyfish-like lips. “You’re so gentle, Letty,” Amanda says as the cow politely noses her way up to the fence to collect her nosh. Then she turns to laugh at another, who has just made a more brazen approach. “Shiloh acts like she’s starving to death.”

Miniature cows at Paisley's Pasture
Erin Doguet, owner of Paisley’s Pasture.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

Miniature cattle require less feed, less land, and smaller trailers than full-size cows, but they don’t remain calf-size forever. “Everybody sees these cute, fluffy, adorable cows all over social media,” says Doguet. She owns Paisley’s Pasture, outside the Hill Country hamlet of Pipe Creek. “Well, they grow up. They’re going to be eight hundred pounds.” That’s far shy of the weight of a mature cow cow, typically around 1,400 pounds, but still quite a unit.

As such, mini cattle need good, strong fences—“I’ve had bulls walk through my fences, and I’ve had the sheriff following one down the highway,” Doguet recalls of her early days in the business. They also need a lot of space. Homann suggests buyers provide two acres per cow, though some breeders recommend less, depending on the conditions of the pasture. Miniature cattle also require vaccinations, deworming, and transportation to the vet when necessary, all of which might intimidate those who don’t have experience with farm animals or access to a livestock trailer. And while I had been excited by the possibility of raising a mini cow in a backyard, the owners of “backyard cows” whom I spoke to were talking about real, multiacre yards—space that I, living in Austin, am unlikely to enjoy in this lifetime.

One owner, Anita Faucett, has miniature Herefords and Highlands, which have long, beachy waves of hair atop their heads and look like they’ve ambled out of the Scottish moors. She had experience raising barnyard animals before owning miniature cows, and they were all petite: mini donkeys, mini horses, and mini goats. But there were still surprises. When she brought one of her smaller cows to the vet with an upset stomach, the vet told her she’d been feeding her cattle too much. Faucett’s cows enjoy pasture grazing supplemented by feed, and they were also receiving extra treats from their obliging owners. The cows are very personable, Faucett explains, but they can be demanding. “They’ll start yelling at us,” she says. “They’re very—I don’t want to say pushy, but they’re pushy!”

Homann provides a lot of assistance and advice to first-time buyers, until they get the hang of managing their minis. So does Doguet, who breeds Highlands and who sold Faucett her first one, a fabulous red specimen named Simba. “Most of mine are going to be what I call ‘posh pets,’ ” Doguet says. They are the mini doodles of the bovine realm, sweet and fancy-looking. “They’re going to be lawn ornaments in someone’s pasture.”

Miniature cows at Paisley's Pasture
Erin Doguet’s prized bull, Borracho, at Paisley’s Pasture.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

Doguet carefully selects buyers for her miniature cows, vetting each one to make sure they’re prepared. She also tells customers that she’s willing to buy back animals at any time if the owners decide, for whatever reason, that they cannot care for them—anything to keep them out of the exotic animal market or online cattle auctions.

One mini-cow owner, John Applebury, bought his Highland, Kincaid, from Doguet. Kincaid has a well-followed Instagram account, and Applebury has on several instances caught rogue sellers using photos of Kincaid, a blond boy who enjoys being scratched with a rake, in cow-fishing schemes. “Erin actually messaged me once and was like, ‘Please say you’re not selling,’ ” Applebury recalls—she had seen a picture of Kincaid circulating. He explained to her that the photo was posted by a scammer, and he had no plans to sell his beloved pet.

Applebury falls in the posh-pet category of owner. His wife has halter-
trained Kincaid, and though he’s getting big, she can still lead him around the neighborhood (mini-cow fantasy reactivated). The couple has support—Applebury’s stepfather, who lives on-site, was raised on a dairy farm—but caring for Kincaid is still a lot of work. “If you’re not excited about hauling around hundred-pound bales of hay because the grass isn’t growing the right way, then it’s probably not the right decision,” Applebury says. “It is not an easy life, caring for a cow.”

Doguet did recently buy back two Highlands she had sold to a family in Dallas. After two years of raising them (and with many to go, for it’s not uncommon for Highlands to live into their twenties), they had become overwhelmed by the amount of work they required.

Besides the practical concerns of raising miniature cattle, there are, as with many “designer” animals, ethical considerations. Buyers who are diligent in their research will become familiar with the bovine chondrodysplasia gene, which causes shortened limbs in cattle and is introduced by some breeders to produce smaller animals. (Many miniature cattle are bred selectively, without that gene; the miniature zebu is the only breed, however, that is naturally small without human selection.) But breeding “chondro” cattle is risky, and can even be fatal for calves if two carriers breed.

Doguet’s cows, which are all between 42 and 45 inches tall, are chondro-negative, while her bulls, the smallest of which is 37 inches tall, are chondro-positive. The American Dexter Cattle Association considers her approach a responsible breeding practice—the ADCA strongly discourages breeding two carriers, and offers testing for chondrodysplasia—and Doguet says her method allows for easier birthing and nursing than if a chondro-carrying cow is bred with a noncarrier bull. (If a cow is too small, her calf might not be able to nurse from her, in which case it must be bottle-raised, another point of contention among breeders.) Doguet notes that she is wary of “pop-up backyard breeders” who may not know what they’re doing, particularly those attempting to produce cattle in the 30- to 32-inch range. “That’s extremely small,” she says. “You’re putting a lot of strain on the animal’s body: their organs, their heart, their lungs. To me, it’s cruel and not functional. I need animals that can still go out there and graze and freely calve.”

Thus, trusting your breeder—and avoiding too-good-to-be-true deals, which can be tantalizing when miniature cattle typically sell for thousands of dollars each—is critical. Applebury reached out to fifteen breeders in 2017 before he bought Kincaid: some were asking for deposits way too early in the process; some simply never got back to him. “It was so hard to find any websites with information. It would be like a picture taken with a snap phone from ’04 and you’re like, is it a cow?” he says. He was wary of buying a miniature cow that would turn out to be a surprise full-sized cow—the curse of the hopeful teacup pig owners who ended up with giant sows. But Kincaid, now four and a half, is just about fully grown. He is as miniature as expected, which is to say: he’s trending toward six hundred pounds.

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “How Now, Tiny Cow?” It originally published online on August 17, 2022, and has since been updated. Subscribe today.