ROCKWELL - Kendra Pillard was hosting a housewares party when a small, strange-looking animal ran past outside.
"That is the ugliest dog I've ever seen," someone cried.
"Well, that's a calf," Kendra said.
"It is? I've never seen one that little."
Kendra opened a window and the calf approached the house. Suddenly, everyone inside was in love with the little guy.
"I like them," said Kendra's husband, Dustin, the proprietor of Oxen Ridge Miniature Cattle on the Pillard farm south of Rockwell. "If nobody else does, that doesn't really bother me. We're breeding just for the novelty end of it, for a small pet-type … for somebody who has a few acres out there and wants something different out there besides sheep.
"A living lawn ornament, some people call them. Everybody gives me a hard time about it."
These stubby lawn ornaments - including about 50 multicolored Texas Longhorns, Texas Shorthorns, Jerseys, Dexters, Herefords, Angus, Zebus and Watusis, none taller than 40 inches - compose Pillard's dream herd.
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He was raised around animals on a farm near Cedar Rapids. Once he saw some little cattle at a sale 10 years ago, he decided he wanted some miniature rodeo bulls.
"I thought, 'Man, if I could have one that's three feet tall, that'd be kind of neat,' " he said. And now Pillard, 30, by day a Mason City firefighter, is one of a handful of Iowans who raise the little critters.
They're short but squat. The smallest full-grown animal is a 3-year-old bull that stands 33 inches tall and weighs 320 pounds. The largest, a mature bull, is 35 inches tall and 400 pounds.
The Pillards get visits from 'Sunday drivers' who notice those little calves - and 4-horned Painted Desert Sheep, which have two horns on top of their heads and two alongside.
Breeding has created cattle with amazing colors: mottled ones, striped ones, spotted ones - some both striped and spotted.
"Anymore, no matter what you breed them to, you're going to end up with a colored calf. That's always nice," Pillard said. "You never know what you're going to have, as far as color. We've used the same bull on the same cow three years in a row, and that cow has had a different colored calf every year.
"Our goal is to have a nice herd of 25 to 30 animals that are all under 36 inches and all less than 500 pounds - and lots of color."
Most of the little animals have good dispositions. Pillard's 4-year-old son, Tyson, has adopted his own calf, Mr. Moo, who likes to be petted.
Food is the key to 'taming' cattle. Pillard's animals especially like corn husks and sweet corn. He paid only about $25 for hay last year for 40 head. The little cows aren't milked, although they could be.
Most of the miniatures can't breed until they're a year old. The smaller animals aren't ready until they're two. Then there's a nine-month gestation period.
"It's a long process," Pillard said, "but it's nice having calves every year. We look forward when it's time to calve."
He tries to sell a few miniatures each year. Bull calves start at around $1,000. Most of the females stay to keep the herd growing.
The cattle have been sold to people across the United States and in Canada. E-mail queries have come from Europe, Mexico and Argentina. The Pillards like the camaraderie that comes with raising multi-colored little animals.
"There's a message group on the Internet that has 140 people on it who are miniature cattle breeders," Pillard said. "A year ago when we started the message board there were 25 or 50 people. So it's growing. Most people don't know there is such a thing. The more people that know about it, the more people seem like they're interested in it.
"If they saw a rodeo bull that was only three feet tall, I'd think they'd have to have one. That's our hope, anyway."
For more information on Oxen Ridge Miniature Cattle and links to other miniature cattle pages, see the Web site at www.geocities.com/minioxen, or call Dustin Pillard at (641) 822-3451.
Reach Dick Johnson at (641) 421-0556 or email@example.com.