Dexter Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Irish native Dexter cows are best raised as a family cow instead of part of a large herd, and breeders should also be aware of “dwarf factor” genetics.
Janet Vorwald Dohner
July 2010
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When this Dexter heifer has a calf, she'll probably produce 1 to 2 gallons of milk a day.
Photo: American Dexter Cattle Association
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Dexter cattle make good homestead cows, known for both both its milk and meat production that is well-suited to a family.  This heritage livestock breed are known for their small stature, but shouldn't be counted out just because they aren't the biggest body in the herd! The remains of Dexter-sized cattle have been found at Stonehenge and may represent the common size and type of Iron Age cattle in Britain and Ireland. In more recent times, some farmers may have purposefully chosen the smaller Kerry stock, just as choices were made between a dairy or beefy type. A visitor to County Cork in 1810 noted that the local farmers preferred “small beasts” because they were hardier and better suited to the land. The first recorded description of the Dexter breed appeared in 1845. Lord Hawarden’s estate agent, or manager, on Valentia Island in County Kerry, a Mr. Dexter, had developed a strain based on the local mountain cattle. As a breeder, Dexter’s goal was a small, dual-purpose household cow. There have been suggestions that Devon cattle were also used in the breed’s development. One observer of the time described these new Dexter cattle as “curious.” The Dexter soon established a foothold in southern Ireland.

In 1882, Dexter cattle were brought to England, mainly as a “curiosity.” Because the Dexter was believed to be a smaller version of the Kerry, they were included together in the Kerry and Dexter cattle societies and their respective herd books in Ireland, England, and North America. The two breeds would not have separate registries until 1919 in Ireland. Meanwhile, little distinction was made between the two breeds, and Kerry cows were frequently mated to Dexter bulls.

The Irish government never supported Dexter breeding efforts as it did the Kerry, but the Dexter was an attractive and practical cow that found favor in the country and abroad. By 1925 in Britain, there were more than 1,100 registered cows in almost 70 herds. The breed suffered setbacks in the 1930s and 1940s but has made a comeback. The British population is now about 2,800. An official upgrading procedure is allowed in the registry. In recent years, some breeders used outside blood from the Aberdeen Angus and Jersey, and Welsh Black may have been introduced in the past.

The first recorded American imports of Dexter cattle, numbering about 200, were made from 1905 to 1915. Because the Kerry had made its way to North America much earlier, it is possible that the Dexter came as well, especially since the conveniently sized Dexter was also used as a milk-producer aboard oceangoing ships. Three large Dexter herds were established in New York, Minnesota, and Kentucky early in the twentieth century. Two modern herds can trace their roots directly back to two of these foundation herds. When the Kerry no longer recorded new registrations after 1920, the registry name was changed to the American Dexter Cattle Association. Additional Dexters were imported after 1950. Although only 75 Dexters were registered in 1970, numbers have steadily grown since then. There were 500 registrations in 1990, and the United States population may be as high as 3,000 today. The American registry does not allow upgrading, but registers by pedigree only.

The first 55 Dexters were brought into Canada after 1960. Doris Crowe of Canada made another significant import in 1982, and these cattle made important contributions to the breed in North America. The Canadian Dexter Cattle Association was founded in 1986, quickly registering 400 cattle. The Canadian registry now receives about 110 to 120 animals a year. The population is estimated at 600 to 700.

Dexters have also been exported to Australia, Argentina, Europe, New Zealand, and South Africa. South African breeders favor the taller dairy-type animal and they nowhave a population of about 1,200 dun or black Dexters.

In Britain and North America, Dexters can be black, red, or dun. Small amounts of white on the udder or bull’s underside are allowed. Dexters are a horned breed. The white horns arc upward to black tips. In the United States, the breed standard ideal describes a three-year-old bull as 38 to 44 inches in height and weighing less than 1,000 pounds. A cow of the same age is slightly shorter and weighs less than 750 pounds. In Britain, the average cow is shorter than 40 inches and weighs about 650 pounds.

The average Dexter cow will give 1 or 2 gallons of 4 to 5 percent butterfat milk a day, which is often more appropriate for a family cow than a larger breed. Like the Kerry’s milk, the fat globules in the Dexter’s milk are small. Where dairy character has been encouraged the Dexter seems to be capable of producing 4 or 5 gallons of milk daily. The Dexter also produces a good, family-sized carcass, since it is blockier in conformation than the Kerry. Retaining its hardiness, the long-lived Dexter is a good forager and browser.

A concern exists in the Dexter community concerning the dwarfing factor that is present in the breed. Two types of Dexters have long been described, the long legged and the short-legged. Some short-legged Dexter cattle exhibit such dwarf features as heavy, misshapen head and forequarters, higher tail-head, shorter body, neck hump, malformed joints, and increased problems with conception or calving. Other short-legged Dexters are perfectly formed miniature animals of proper proportions. There can be a gradation between these two types. There are also longer-legged Dexters that are almost Kerry in appearance.

Breeders have long felt that if both parents have the dwarf factor, believed to be a partially dominant achondroplastic gene, then about 25 percent of their offspring will be long-legged, about 50 percent will be short-legged Dexters, and the remaining 25 percent will be “bulldog calves,” so deformed that they are usually spontaneously aborted. Other authorities believe that the dwarfing problem is more complex and that individual animals cannot be cleanly divided into long- or short-legged types. A study under way at the University of Illinois hopes to identify the DNA markers for the bulldog trait.

Unfortunately, the dwarf, sometimes freakish animal was a curiosity in Victorian Britain, and the genetic defect was perpetuated. Show-ring infatuations with extremely small size have also favored the dwarf type at times. The recent popularity and resultant higher prices of Dexter stock have led some to view the breed as a moneymaking venture. Some breeders are willing to accept a certain number of bulldog calves in the pursuit of small size, and so they continue to use the dwarf factor in order to produce fashionable animals.

Other breeders have seriously addressed the dwarfing problem and almost entirely eliminated it from their herds through careful identification and selection of breeding animals. These breeders have successfully produced true breeding, healthy miniatures. In addition, many breeders have scrupulously avoided outside breeding in their bloodlines. In summary, the Dexter buyer needs to be well informed in making a choice of breeding stock.

Dexter bulls have been used in the past for crossbreeding with Shorthorns, Herefords, or Aberdeen Angus, producing nice, small, beefy stock. The use of Dexter cows for crossbreeding, like those of any rare breed, is not recommended because it wastes the genetic breeding potential of that cow during her relatively short reproductive life. Similarly, the efforts of miniature cattle breeders who seek only to produce smaller and smaller animals is somewhat senseless. Cattle are not pets.

Dexters are perfectly suited for family uses. Their size makes them easier to handle and cheaper to feed. Producing family-sized amounts of milk and meat, two Dexters can be bred at different times and thus supply milk year-round for about the same amount of money and care as one much larger cow. The Dexter cow is a good forager and excellent mother. Long-time Canadian breeder Doris Crowe asserts, “When we build space stations and people live in them all the time, they are going to take a Dexter cow with them.”

Because of these positive traits, the Dexter population has continued to grow in the United Kingdom, North America, and elsewhere. Although the worldwide number of Dexters has grown to around 10,000, this population is varied in type and separated by health regulations. The first World Dexter Congress met in 1998, helping to insure that responsible breeders will remain committed to the Dexter’s healthy future.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available from Amazon. 


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