Irish Dexter Cattle are a triple purpose breed, perfect for a small holder or homesteader. You can raise a calf for your freezer, milk it’s dam and have a working team of oxen all in the same breed. If you put time into these animals, they are very tractable and easy to train. They eat far less than a full sized cow, are generally hardy and calf easily. They are easier on your land and soil due to their size. You can stock more cows per acre than full sized animals. There are other specialized breeds that will give you more beef, or more milk, but for a small holder or homesteader that wants an animal that serves many purposes – the Dexter is ideal.
Traditionally, Irish Dexter cattle were used as a house cow to provide milk for the family and beef for the table. They were prized for their ability to be easily kept on a small amount of forage. Some people misinterpret this history as meaning these cows can give high yields on practically nothing, which is not true. They are economical to feed, but you get back what you put in. Our cows are fed hay for 6 months a year due to our harsh Northern climate, and we plan on around 3500lbs (about five round bales of the hay we purchase) of hay per animal for this time period. We do not grain our animals, they do not require it.
There are several theories about how the Irish Dexter breed started, but the one thing most can agree to is that they were based off the Kerry breed in Ireland. Many believe the Dexters were the short Kerry cattle (or Kerrys that carried the Chondrodysplasia gene). The Dexters were exported to England where they gained much popularity as a breed. They are the smallest breed of English 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 base of the horned Dexters 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. 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. We have chosen to attempt to save the old original US import lines, so that is a large part of our breeding decisions (as is breeding to the old standard which included and applauded the short genetics). We want a Dexter that looks and functions like the old style Dexter cattle did. There are other breeds that we can utilize if we wanted to raise only beef or dairy cattle, but we want it all, so we chose Dexters.
Some Dexters carry a gene that makes them a true dwarf, the Chondrodysplasia gene. One copy of this gene makes the cattle abnormally short and stocky. Many of the original Dexters were Chondrodysplasia carriers. Our cattle are all tested for this gene as it is not wise to breed two animals carrying the gene together. This cross results in a 25% possibility of a non-viable “bulldog” calf. The situation is easily remedied by not breeding carrier to carrier, and utilizing the inexpensive hair based testing available from UC Davis to test for the gene. Breeding a carrier to a non-carrier is 100% safe, with 50% of the offspring potentially being “short”.
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, a non-viable swollen calf is the result, 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 it’s heterozygous form.
Dexter temperaments do vary. The more time you put in 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. Cows older than a year old are more difficult to bring around to being friendly if they were never handled. It can be done, but it requires much more time and does not always work. Younger cattle can be brought around quickly by simply halter breaking and brushing them. 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 being handled to be milked at a later time.
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 4-6% 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. A2 testing is available for Dexters, as is Beta Lactoglobulin and Kappa Casein from UC Davis. If you don’t need 5 gallons of milk a day, a Dexter may be the milk cow for you.
This breed also produces a rich grass fed meat, in quantities adequate for an average family. Our strictly grass fed cattle yield around 275lbs of delicious beef cuts when harvested in the Fall at just over 2yrs old. Hanging hot carcass weights on a bull or steer are around 475lbs. We estimate live weight around 800-900lbs (we do not have a live weight scale). We average a 60% yield on our animals (we could up this number if we utilized the organ meat and bones, but we wanted to portray what usable cuts the majority of owners would take home). The meat is rich red and marbled with just enough fat cover when raised properly on grass. The portion size is surprisingly large for a small animal. The steak size from a Dexter is more than adequate. 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!
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 strive to have all our cattle halter broke, and it has been thus far an easy endeavor. I can imagine that training one 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. Please feel free to contact us if you have questions. We are happy to chat!