About Dexter Cattle
Dexter cattle are a triple purpose breed, being utilized for milk, meat and draft power. They are small, thrifty and docile, ideal for the smallholder or farmstead.
Why We Love Dexter Cattle
Dexter Breed History
Dexter cattle originated in Ireland in the mid 18th century. As the legend goes, a Mr. Dexter, who served as an agent for Lord Hawarden of the county Kerry, selected small black cattle and formed the breed.
Dexter cattle were exported to England in the late 1800's where they gained much popularity as a breed, as popularity waned in Ireland. The first herdbook was published in 1890 in England.
They are the smallest breed of British cattle, weighing in between 600-900lbs and averaging 36-42″ for cows and 38-44″ for bulls. They come in three colors, black (most popular), dun and red.
Dexters were first imported into the United States in the early 1900’s. These first imported Dexters were the foundation stock of the horned Dexter cattle we see today in the United States and Canada. Polled genetics were brought in in the 1990’s via imported semen from England. There is some argument as to the authenticity of the polled gene coming from purebred Dexter stock. There is also some argument as to the ancestry of some other imported semen and animals from the 1990’s into today’s breeding. Today's Dexters can be categorized by pedigree as Legacy, Traditional or Modern. The Legacy category includes animals imported into the US through 1955, as well as the Woodmagic herd. Traditional Dexters include Legacy pedigrees, plus one bull, Parndon Bullfinch. Modern adds any horned bloodline bull imported after 1987 with a DCS appendix registry entry and any polled bloodline. We encourage you to research this, as the majority of the Dexter breed in the United States is now infused with these questionable genetics. There are very few cattle left that do not include those lines in question, and those are the animals with Legacy or Traditional pedigrees.
We have chosen to be part of the Legacy movement that is attempting to save the old original US import lines (which are from stock that was not "upgraded" with other breeds) and follow the old Dexter size standards. We strive to produce a Dexter that looks and functions like the old style Dexter cattle did. We idealize small cattle with well attached, high capacity udders, with deep bodies and big, broad heads. There are other breeds that we can utilize if we wanted to raise only beef or dairy cattle, but the old style Dexter is what we enjoy.
Temperaments & Personalities
Dexter cattle are generally very docile animals, but there are exceptions to every rule. The more time you put in socializing with your herd, the friendlier they will become. There will always be the cows that do not want to be handled or petted, but the majority will enjoy your companionship once they trust you. This trust comes with time and training. One can make friends quickly by simply halter breaking and brushing weanlings. This act not only ingrains trust, but it ensures that if need be, you can move or load your cattle by hand. It also conditions a heifer to be handled to be milked at a later time.
This breed produces a rich grass-fed meat, in quantities adequate for an average family. As the cattle developed in Ireland, with work and marginal feed they developed the ability to store any extra energy as intramuscular fat. These cattle have the ability to finish on good grass. See our (real life) example 1 on the right. This isn't Angus size, but it is perfect for direct marketing in our area where our customers normally purchase a half an Angus type beef per year. We average a 65% yield on our animals (we could up this number if we utilized the organ meat and bones, but we want to portray what usable cuts the majority of owners would take home). The meat is rich red and marbled with a good fat cover when raised properly on grass. The steak size is surprisingly large for a small animal. The best part about having a whole cow for beef is you get all the cuts. You can have prime rib and rib steaks. You can have adequate amounts of burger and stew meat. You can have your steak, and eat it too!
750lb live weight steer
450lb hanging (hot carcass) weight
293lbs cut meat back (sale type cuts only)
Chondrodysplasia & PHA
Some Dexters carry a gene that makes them a true dwarf, called the Chondrodysplasia gene. It is sometimes also referred to as the "bulldog" gene. Cattle that carry the chondrodysplasia gene are often termed "chondros", "carriers" or "shorties." Cattle that carry one copy of this gene are notably shorter at the cannon (lower leg) bone and stockier with wider, dished faces than non-carriers. Many of the foundation cattle of the Dexter breed were Chondrodysplasia carriers - it was an integral part of the original breed. By itself, this gene is not harmful to the "carrier," however, when breeding two "carriers" together there is a 25% chance of a terminal cross, known as a "bulldog" calf. This calf is small and deformed, not viable at delivery but does not normally injure the cow in the birthing process. Often these cows slip their non-viable calves early on and the cow just appears to have not been bred.
Breeders can utilize the inexpensive hair based DNA testing (available from UC Davis) to test for the gene, and not breed carriers to carriers. Breeding a carrier to a non-carrier is 100% safe, with 50% of the offspring potentially being “short” or "chondro-carriers" and the other 50% being non-carriers. By simply not breeding carriers to carriers, you have eliminated the chance of a bulldog calf.
Why we like carriers:
Temperament, our short cows and calves are extremely docile.
Forage conversion, our shorties keep better condition on less feed.
Calf growth rates, we have tall (non-carrier) calves out of short cows that are just as fast growing as tall calves from tall cows.
Maturity, bulls and steers mature on grass earlier than non-carriers.
Yield, shorties have a higher meat to bone ratio.
Size, shorties are one of the captivating features of the breed, they are hard not to fall in love with.
PHA or Pulmonary Hypoplasia with Anasarca is another gene present in Dexters that can create issues. When a carrier of the gene is bred to another carrier, there is a 25% chance that a non-viable swollen calf results, and it can be very dangerous for the cow to attempt to deliver it. There is no visible sign of PHA, so testing is wise. Like the Chondrodysplasia test, it is a simple hair test that can also be done at UC Davis’s Veterinary Genetics Lab. Most, if not all PHA carriers cases can be traced back to a few animals. As with Chondrodysplasia, a carrier bred to a non-carrier results in the 50% chance of creating another carrier but causes no harm in its heterozygous form. Our herd has been tested and is PHA free.
Our chondro carrier bull Marcus, with a tall heifer in the background.
Dexter cows produce a rich, creamy milk in moderate quantities that serve well for a homestead. The average milk yield varies according to cow and diet, but they can average 1-2 gallons of milk per day with around 4% butterfat. Exceptional cows have been recorded giving up to 5 gallons a day, but this is the exception, not the rule. Dexter milk makes a delicious cheese and delectable golden butter. It is rich, high quality and nutritious for your family. Kefir, yogurt, skyr, ice cream and other milk products can be made with Dexter milk in your home. Dexters do not yield like a dedicated milking breed, but pound for pound, these little cows out produce many other breeds. If you don’t need 5 gallons of milk a day, a Dexter may be the milk cow for you.
Dexters also can be used as oxen. We have not trained one yet here to work on the farm, but we would like to at some point. There are many Dexter oxen in the North East region of the United States, and they are purported to be easily trainable. We halter break our heifers so they are easy to handle later in life, and it has been thus far an easy endeavor. I can imagine that training a steer to work would be a fairly simple task for someone with the desire and time to do it.
Dexters are an ideal homestead cow for us. They are economical to keep, we can sell a few beef animals for income, milk a cow for the house all while preserving the original Dexter cattle brought to America over 100 years ago.