Dexter Cattle: Guide, Info & Facts

The Dexter cattle breed is rare yet has begun recovering from low numbers in North America and across the world, thanks to conservation efforts, importations, and breeding. Its meat is tender, flavorsome, and has good marbling.

As one of the smallest natural cattle breeds, Dexter cattle have gone from small herds as the “poor man’s cow” in the 18th century to being named a rare breed by the Livestock Conservancy in the 1970s.

This breed exists in different countries under the watch of associations such as

  • American Dexter Cattle Association
  • Dexter Cattle Australia Inc.
  • The Dexter Cattle Society in the United Kingdom.

Where Does The Dexter Cattle Breed Come From?

Dexter cattle originate from southwestern Ireland and are descendants of black Celtic cattle. The Irish breed was developed in Kerry County in the 18th century by Mr. Dexter, the manager of the Lord Howarden estate.

The Dexters were initially entered in the same herdbook as the Kerry cattle breed, but this later changed when the two breeds were classified as separate, though closely related.

Dexter cattle are primarily raised as a dual-purpose breed for milk and meat, although they are also reared as one of the few remaining tri-purpose breeds if used as oxen.

Two types of Dexter cattle are recognized worldwide—the short-legged and the long-legged (non-short) Dexters.

What’s important to note here is that the Dexters are inherently a small breed rather than made small through selective breeding. Only miniature Dexters owe their small size to dwarfism or selective breeding aimed at propagating them for their small size.

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Dexter Cattle Breed Characteristics

Dexters have the following characteristics:

Official Breed NameDexter Cattle
OriginIreland
AppearanceSmall, with a broad body, well-rounded hindquarters and either short or long legs
Color is predominantly black, but dun (pale brown) and red Dexters also exist
Originally horned, but many are now naturally polled through breeding
Calf Weight25-35 pounds
Mature Cow Weight600-700 pounds (mostly short-legged) and 800-1,000 pounds (long-legged)
Mature Cow Height34-46 inches, but mostly 36-42 inches at the shoulder
Mature Bull Weight1,000 pounds (short-legged) and 1,000-1,200 pounds (long-legged)
Mature Bull Height36-50 inches, but mostly 38-44 inches at the shoulder
Ready To Breed15-18 months of age (for heifers)
Gestation Period9 months
First Calvings21 months
Time to Slaughter2 years
Carcass Weight319-485 pounds
Expected LifespanUp to 25 years and expect 14 years+ of productivity
Known ForExceptional docility, intelligence and curiosity, early maturity, high fertility rates (especially when bred with bulls), and high-quality milk.
WeaknessesProne to Pulmonary Hypoplasia with Anasarca and lethal congenital chondrodysplasia
Conception rates sometimes dwindle to 50-60% on AI
ClimateVery hardy and adapts well to varying extreme climatic conditions
a dexter cow eating grass

What Is So Special About Dexter Cattle?

In their homeland in the rocky mountainous regions of southwestern Ireland, Dexter cattle were originally reared by small landholders because they require less acreage per animal.

Dexters also require less feed than larger breeds of cattle, which earned them the name Poor Man’s Cow because their small size and lower acreage requirement endeared them to small landholders and homesteaders.

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Besides these two size-related attributes, Dexter cattle are also known for their versatility, longevity, quality lean meat, hardiness, exceptional mothering, easy calvings, and ability to dry up naturally.

The versatility of Dexters is seen in their ability to thrive as a dual-purpose breed of cattle, even though those reared for beef have lower milk production than those raised as a dairy breed. The cattle are also kept for draft power.

Lactating Dexters produce milk with about 4% butterfat content, which is close to the high-quality milk of Jersey cows.

Compared to other beef animals, Dexter beef is slightly darker. It also has good marbling, less fiber, and is flavorful, fine-grained, and tender.

Dexter cattle live long lives as domesticated bovines for up to 25 years, with a reproductive lifespan of 14 years or more for females. Frequent herd replacements are not extremely necessary.

Despite the small size of Dexter cattle, their beef productivity is remarkable. They dress out at 50-60 and up to 70% of live weight because they have less fiber in the meat and little fat and bone waste.

The exceptional mothering ability of Dexter cows is observed in several ways. The mothers are highly protective of their calves. They also produce enough milk for them and usually feed 2-3 calves simultaneously if the need arises. This reduces the hassle of raising motherless calves.

Why Should I Raise Dexter Cattle On My Farm?

Now that you know the history and outstanding characteristics of Dexter bulls and cows, here are some strong reasons to consider raising this breed on your farm:

  • Since they are good browsers, Dexters are ideal for removing pest plants from your pastures. They also make perfect suckler cows for conservation grazing.
  • A lactating Dexter makes a good family milking cow, producing a remarkable 3,050 to 3,660 liters of milk per 305-day lactation. Some produce up to 4,080 liters of milk per similar lactation period. You can sell value-added or surplus raw milk.
  • The ability of Dexter cows to dry up naturally near the end of the gestation period means that you don’t have to worry about drying them early erroneously, risking mastitis attacks and the attendant vet bills and loss of productivity.
  • Because of their hardiness, you can save money with Dexters since they rarely require veterinarian intervention unless the case is extreme.
  • You can improve your existing herd by breeding first-calf heifers of larger breeds with Dexter bulls for smaller calves and to reduce dystocia.
  • Dexter cattle can make good pets and show animals due to their great personality and strong docility.
  • Dexters will support your land conservation efforts better (than larger dairy or beef cattle) because they are smaller and lighter, hence causing less damage to farmland and fences.
  • It’s more economical to raise Dexter cattle than larger cattle breeds. Their small size means they eat much less and have more ability to turn forage into milk and meat.
  • Dexter cattle are hard to come by and thus expensive, meaning you can make money as a Dexter breeder from calf sales.

Alex

Alex grew up in a rural area with chickens, cows, goats, and rabbits. He has always enjoyed waking up at 6 am to tend to his flock and vegetable garden. He bought his first cow at 25 and named her "104". In 2021, he set up an aquarium and now spends his lazy time watching his fish. He is happiest watching small animals and plants grow big, not to mention writing to share his farm-life experiences.

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