By Daryl & Diane Frank – When Mr. Dexter gathered the best of the cattle from the Irish countryside, I wonder if he suspected that the resulting herd would become a breed named after him? Or that raising Dexter cattle would spread to Europe, the Americas, Africa, New Zealand, Australia and other areas where a sturdy, efficient bovine was desired?
Although the breed was first reported in Ireland in 1776 they might be considered an ancient breed as Mr. Dexter was choosing his cattle from descendants of the Celtic cattle, which had ranged over the island country for millenniums.
Dexter cattle are among the smallest cattle breeds in the world. Most Dexters are black, however, some are red or a dull grayish-brown (dun). They are solid and compact, and both sexes have white horns tipped in black.
Two body forms are found within the breed: cattle with normal-sized bodies and short legs, and cattle that are proportionally small all around. Both short and long-legged types produce the same amounts of meat and milk. Dexter cows can calve up to 16-18 years of age, with calves weighing about 45 pounds at birth. They’ll reach full size at five to six years of age.
Bulls reach a shoulder height of 38-44 inches; cows: 36-42 inches, with a lifespan of roughly 20 years.
People who are raising Dexter cattle describe them as good browsers, and they are sometimes used to rid pastures of pest plants. They were adapted to live on low-quality vegetation and to forage for their food.
When we learned how to start a cattle farm several years ago, we turned our purchased cattle into a small, rough pasture. They seemed to enjoy the taste of cattails to the point of eliminating them from the pasture (not a bad thing). We found they also enjoyed the taste of burdock leaves. This solved a real problem for us, as we don’t use herbicides on our farm.
During our Wisconsin summers, we have our Dexter cattle on pasture continuously. We rotate our pastures but since we have a large area (100 acres total) we aren’t as scientific as we could be about the pasture rotation. If and when we reach a larger herd population we will give more attention to this. If you are new to raising Dexter cattle or any other breed, this guide on cattle farming for beginners offers excellent advice on raising beef on pasture.
At the beginning of hay season, when the hay is growing furiously, we have a neighbor make round bales for us. We have a shed to store them in to maintain quality. As part-time farmers, we could never keep up with first crop hay by making small, square bales. Second, and rarely third crop, is made into the small bales for young stock and horses.
We supplement the calves with ground barley fed daily. They don’t really need this but it’s good to feed and it keeps us close to them so they don’t get wild.
We feed little extra to our steers before butchering. We don’t turn out a fat, heavily marbled steer. Our market has always been people who desire a healthier meat product.
If you decide on raising Dexter Cattle, you’ll find that they are no more miniature than are Mongol Ponies, for instance. Over a very long period of time, the Dexter cattle found a smaller size to their advantage. Were they a miniature cattle breed, they might not have the sturdiness and resilience they are noted for.
Although I have often seen our Dexters using a snowdrift for a naptime bed there are times they need something more substantial. The cold rains of spring and fall can get through their coats and chill them. There are a variety of housing types that can be used. Normal farm buildings or lean-tos work just fine. Since we do rotate our pastures we have taken to using Port-A-Huts. We buy them five feet high and 14 feet long. When we move the Dexters to a different pasture we just drag the huts along!
Our bull, Sam, has a permanent paddock with a Port-A-Hut in it. When he entertains he is generous in sharing his hut with guests.
Facts About Raising Dexter Cattle
• A Dexter cow can produce more milk for its weight than any other breed, averaging 1.5–2.5 gallons (5.7-9.5 lbs.) per day.
• The Dexter is the smallest breed of cattle in North America.
The reason we started raising Dexter cattle was to feed the leftover horse hay to something. We got Holstein cross cattle because of their viability here in Wisconsin. They are large animals that needed lots of pasture, hay, water and left lots of manure to clean up.
We did get plenty of beef to put in the freezer and to sell to our family and friends. Half of a cow is 360 pounds! No one eats red meat like that anymore. That would feed a family of four a year (the storage life of frozen beef).
We went from buying bred cows to buying bottle calves (calves bought without a nursing mother). The only real problem was, as I got older the cows got larger and stronger. Even a friendly head rub could be painful for me—and don’t even think of pushing or pulling one through a barn door.
A friend sent us a gift from Montana wrapped in their local newspaper. I read an ad for Dexter cattle and we were on a mission to find animals for sale and buy some. Their small size, hardiness and docility are good reasons you too might consider raising Dexter cattle.
After many phone calls and Internet surfing, we were told about the American Dexter Cattle Association. I got a herd list of Wisconsin Dexter owners—I’m sure I called everyone on that list. That is when I met Margaret Millhouse.
Margaret is very knowledgeable about Dexter cattle and very generous with her time. She has sold me three heifers over the years. I still cherish her friendship and honor her farm animal knowledge. I know she has not only assisted many inquiries that helped many people but she started many people in raising Dexter cattle by her selling and direction of where to buy animals. She is also well known as a Dexter historian.
Our first Dexter registered cow was named Lazy L Little One (Miss Dex). She was 13-years-old from the Lilliputt/Peerless bloodline, an original horned black cow. She was not a pet when we bought her. I had hoped to procreate that bloodline.
I have since learned to buy pet-quality cows from reputable breeders. (People known for their honesty and good records). We have purchased many cows over these last six years, and we have also purchased a bull. Our Manitowoc Mark’s Sam was a pasture-raised, untouched three-month-old calf when we brought him home. (I do not suggest that everyone have a bull or raise one without some knowledge of bulls.)
Six years after beginning our herd, there are 19 head of Dexter at Nature’s Paradise Farm. I have had the privilege of helping several other people begin raising Dexter cattle.
For more information contact: http://dextercattle.org
Originally published in 2003 and regularly vetted for accuracy.