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Little dogies a growing business for Nebraska couple

TEKAMAH, Neb. (AP)--From high on a wall at the Ali and Kenny Petersen house, the eyes of Old Rock stare resolutely and straight ahead into the distance.

It's almost as if the mounted head of this Hereford bull and his mighty horns are standing guard over the nearby cardboard box that holds Babe and her six rubber-legged puppies.

If you want to talk about "cute,'' Ali Petersen's eyes are more likely to fix on the puppies.

If you want to talk about the best production traits of a proud, but pint-sized breed in a gallon-jug world, look for her gaze to lift toward Old Rock. He was a Texas transplant and the first sire of a herd of registered Miniature Herefords at the KP Ranch.

May he rest in peace.

"Cute is one thing,'' said Petersen earlier, as she led the tour of a nearby pasture sprinkled with dehorned cows about half the size of your basic Sandhills cud chewer. "But unless you have an absolutely usable product, you have a trinket and you have an ornament.''

Back in the 1990s, Ali Petersen was a nurse in nearby Fremont, her husband was an auctioneer and real estate agent, and they were treating a herd of about 50 standard-size cows as their gateway to retirement.

The money was not exactly rolling in. "When we sold our second or third calf crop, we said, 'We're not going to live long enough to retire.'''

They acquired Old Rock and 10 of his petite Texas girlfriends in 1994 as a way to improve on their income potential.

They now own about 175 cows and five bulls. They sell breeding bulls and heifers, all dehorned to suit market preferences, for up to $10,000 each. They also sell bull semen and embryos. They have fertilized miniature Hereford embryos implanted in standard-size cows to help boost their numbers.

The husband in this husband-and-wife duo did not presume success when he decided to go from big to small.

In fact, according to his wife, in the fall of 1996, "Kenny had a panic attack and said, 'What if they don't sell?'''

To test their chances, they took three bulls to the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

"We got there on a Wednesday afternoon, and in the first day and a half, we sold nine head.''

That included six sight unseen.

Since then, they've accommodated customers from all over the United States and Canada. They've shipped embryos to Australia. They're cooking up a possible deal with somebody in Egypt.

Bulls that don't meet the Petersen standard for the classic Hereford profile become steers. The meat brings premiums in the range of $1.25 a pound, compared with the more standard 90-some cents.

Along the way, husband and wife tirelessly promote the miniature Hereford virtues of quality, efficiency and size.

"We figure you can run two (cow-calf) pairs on the same amount of grass it takes to run one standard-sized pair,'' Ali said.

In the bigger picture, there are now an estimated 300 miniature Hereford breeders in the United States. That's up from fewer than two dozen in 2000.

According to the International Miniature Cattle Breeders Society and Registry, there are 26 minibreeds in all, including Black Baldies, Pandas and Covingtonshires.

The Petersens' red-and-white entries in this growing field are not a miracle of genetic manipulation.

They are Herefords of the size that Herefords used to be in their native England. The Tekamah couple gets where they want to go by reversing the usual course of breeding the biggest to the biggest. They favor smallest to smallest.

In proper business mode, Ali Petersen recalled an across-the-fence conversation some years ago with a man who raised miniature horses. She thought she got the better of it as they discussed the functional qualities of their critters.

"I said, 'I can eat mine. What can you do with yours?'''

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