About Dexter Cattle
Irish Dexter Cattle
Dexter cattle originated in the early 1800’s from small herds of native cattle found in the Kerry region of southwest Ireland. Perhaps descending from the predominantly black cattle of the early Celts or from the black and white spotted cattle described in early Irish writings, the true origin of these beautiful cattle is unclear. Some writings, however, credit a Mr. Dexter, who served as an agent for Lord Howarden of County Kerry, as their original breeder. He is said to have selected the hardiest mountain cattle of the region in his breeding program, working toward developing small cattle that were suitable for both beef and milk production.
The Dexter is a small breed with mature cows weighing between 600–700 pounds (270–320 kg) and mature bulls weighing about 1,000 pounds (450 kg). Considering their small size, the body is wide and deep with well-rounded hindquarters. Although usually black, a dark-red or dun Dexter is sometimes found. They are always single-colored except for some very minor white marking on the udder or behind the navel. Horns are rather small and thick and grow outward with a forward curve on the male and upward on the female. The breed is suitable for beef or milk production, as well as for oxen.
The beef produced by Dexters is well marbled and tends to be darker, and the rich milk is relatively high in butterfat (4%) and the quality of the milk overall is similar to that of the Jersey. Some claim the milk is more naturally homogenized than other milk due to the smaller fat globules. Dexters can reasonably be expected to produce 2 to 2.5 gallons (7.6 to 9.5 litres) per day.
The cows are exceptionally good mothers, hiding their calves almost from birth if there is any cover for them to hide. They will produce enough milk to feed 2–3 calves, and often will willingly nurse calves from other cows. They are known for easy calving. This trait, along with the small size of the calf, has produced a small but growing market in the United States for Dexter bulls to breed to first calf heifers among the larger beef breeds to eliminate problems at parturition.
Some Dexter cattle carry Chondrodysplasia, which is a form of dwarfism that results in shorter legs than non-affected Dexters. The Chondrodysplasia affected Dexters are typically 6–8 inches shorter in height than non-affected Dexters. Care should be taken to avoid breeding two Chondrodysplasia affected Dexters together as there is a 25% chance that the fetus can abort prematurely. A DNA test is available to test for the Chondrodysplasia gene by pulling tail hairs from the animal.
Dexters can also be affected with PHA (Pulmonary Hypoplasia with Anasarca) which is an incomplete formation of the lungs with accumulation of a serum fluid in various parts of the tissue of the fetus. Unlike Chondrodysplasia, which has many physical signs, PHA shows no outward signs and is only possible to detect through DNA testing. As with Chondrodysplasia, PHA affected Dexters should not be bred together.
Dexters are typically horned, however a polled strain was developed in the 1990s.
Great Things in Small Packages
When it comes to value, Dexter’s are a real bargain in the cattle world!
Dexter’s are a multipurpose breed.
They can be raised to milk, to grow for beef, and even to train as oxen.
Dexter’s are extremely efficient foragers.
They will graze eagerly on high quality pasture,
but will also eat brush, weeds, and native grasses
that other breeds of cattle usually avoid.
They require less food than their larger relatives because of their smaller size,
but their exceptionally efficient feed-to-product ratio
is the characteristic that distinguishes them as thrifty animals.
Dexter’s are highly intelligent.
They adapt very well to halter training
and can be excellent competitors in the show arena.
Dexter’s are a terrific breed for small acreage farms.
A little more than an acre of reasonable pasture can support two Dexter’s.
Dexter’s adapt well to homestead, multi-species farming.
They are typically quite reasonable
and can learn to co-exist with a variety of other farm animals.
Dexter’s are a hardy breed.
They can live in nearly any climate.
Dexter’s typically calve easily, producing a calf every year even into their teens.
They have wonderful mothering instincts!
Dexter bulls are known for their docile natures.
A Dexter's smaller size makes them perfect for specialty farming.
They are much less imposing to first-time farmers than huge beef breeds.
They require less working space than large milking breeds.
Dexters are easy on the environment.
There smaller size greatly dimishes their negative impact on the land. Their naturally fertilizing manure adds nutrients to the ground. And their grazing/foraging behavior, when managed appropriately, can help build depth and richness to the soil.