Mini-Cattle: The Amazing Irish Dexter

Mini-cattle are the answer for homesteaders interested in raising livestock, and the Irish Dexter is nearly the perfect breed.
By Randy Kidd
March/April 1980
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Irish Dexter mini cattle are compact, docile, and highly productive, though somewhat rare.
PHOTO: RANDY KIDD


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Suppose someone could "invent" the perfect cow for homesteaders . . . what would the bovine beauty be like? Well, the animal would probably be an economical, small beast that required about half the grazing land of an ordinary cow or steer . . . yet still gave a fine yield of both milk and beef, right? Not only that (as long as we're fantasizing, we might as well go all the way!), but the critter would be so docile and friendly that it could be a domestic pet as well as a livestock animal!

Well, amazingly enough, such a small-is-beautiful breed of cattle actually exists! These "dream beasts" are called Irish Dexters (they were developed—years ago—by frugal Gaelic folk who wanted to get a lot of milk and meat but owned only small plots of land), and they really and truly do possess all the "invented" virtues listed above.

So if you're a small-scale farmsteader, Dexter cattle could quite possibly be the perfect livestock for you to raise. BUT (isn't there always a "but"?) before you try to build up a herd of the pint-sized bossies, you should take a close look at both the "pluses" and "minuses" of the Emerald Isle imports.

The Good News

Irish Dexters are, indeed, much smaller (and therefore more "homestead sized") than our common cattle breeds. A mature cow of this unique line averages around 600-800 pounds, and an adult bull weighs in at between 800 and 1,000 pounds (which makes the beast a heck of a lot lighter animal than the average-sized 2,000-pound Brahman steer!). The waist-high ruminants are stocky and very short-legged (especially below the knees) critters. In fact, they resemble heavy-shouldered Black Angus cattle, but they're built so low to the ground that you almost wonder if their briskets will drag!

Dexter cattle are also "easy keepers": They're relatively weather-hardy beasts and require much less land and grain than do larger bovine breeds. During the grazing season, a cow and her calf can eat heartily on a couple of acres of good pasture . . . and an adult Dexter's daily wintertime ration need be only a bale—or at most a bale and a half—of hay along with a pound of grain.

Just as important as the breed's economical eating habits is the fact that the dual-purpose animals do a good job of producing both meat and milk. An 18-month-old steer will dress out to a good 250-500 pounds of tasty beef, and a cow may yield 400-600 gallons of milk a year. (The fresh liquid contains a high—5%, or more—butterfat content, but tends to be "naturally homogenized" like goat's milk, so you'll need either a separator or some patience if you want to produce cream.)

Dexters are also extremely easy to work with. The low-slung cud-chewers have such gentle dispositions that some owners let their children caretake 'em . . . others find that a few strands of barbed wire fencing are enough to contain the placid critters . . . and lots of Dexter ranchers think of their animals as bovine companions!

You'd naturally assume that such positive traits would make Dexter cattle just about the breed for small landholders. And sure enough, most everyone who raises the animals is absolutely delighted with the petite-but-productive beasts. So why, then, haven't Dexters become farmstead regulars? Why don't you see the critters all over our nation's pastures? The reason, of course, is that along with all the good news about the hardy cows, there is also some bad news.

The Other Side of the Story

The most "infamous" drawback of the Irish Dexter is the breed's genetic "bulldog trait." This birth defect (chondrodystrophia fetalis) is fatal to any fetus that inherits it. The mother is not affected, but her unborn calf—which has a bulldog-like pushed-in nose and extremely short legs—is spontaneously aborted sometime between the second and eighth months of pregnancy.

The inherited trait is carried by a recessive gene, so while only a moderate percentage of Dexter calves are "bulldogs", the potential for the defect is often handed down by seemingly healthy specimens.

In theory, one quarter of Dexter offspring bred from parents who carry the trait should not survive. Fortunately, some other—and not yet completely understood—genetic factors modify the occurrence of this calamity so that, in real life, less than one quarter of the offspring are bulldogs. (Incidentally, other cattle can be afflicted with chondrodystrophia fetalis . . . so never risk spreading the bulldog trait by mating a Dexter with an animal of another breed.)

The first piece of bad news, then, for potential Dexter caretakers is that such farmers will lose a percentage (probably around 5-10%, but conceivably closer to 25%) of their calf crop. Established Dexter owners, though, don't find this part of "doing business" with the breed to be a prohibitive drawback.

Prospective "mini-cow" raisers will have to face one more—quite serious—problem, however: scarcity. There are only 500 or 600 Irish Dexters in the entire United States, so it can be danged hard to find an animal that's up for sale. Folks sometimes have to search for years to locate an owner who's willing to part with even one healthy, productive cow.

You can learn the whereabouts of Irish Dexters in the U.S. by contacting the American Dexter Cattle Association. But be patient while you're waiting for a reply. The Dexter Association people have at times in the past been deluged with information requests. They eventually (and kindly) answer all their mail . . . but they might understandably not "cotton to" insistent queries from people who are too anxious.

So if you want to raise Irish Dexters, you first have to accept the fact that it will take time—and persistence—to discover a source of the economical animals. On the other hand, though, folks who eventually do get these "dream" farmstead livestock most often find that the rewards are worth the wait.


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Post a comment below.

 

E. Hans
10/18/2008 10:01:14 AM
Oppps! Guess I should have waited to read the entire article before I made that last comment! I didn't think MEN would have such a gross inaccuracy as the mis-statement about chondrodysplaysia. I have never seen a bulldog calf, nor have most Dexter breeders. The cause of the deformity is known & the way to avoid it is known. It is caused by a recesive gene. You can usually tell the carriers, so you just don't mate carriers if you want to be guarenteed not to get a bull dog! I do mate carriers, by bull is a carrier & I chose him because of his being a carrier. I also have carrier cows. Yet, I've never seen a bulldog calf. Why is that? As MEN says, the chances of conception of a bulldog calf is 25% ONLY when both parents are carriers (as mine are.) But, the calves are so nonviable that they slip early in the pregnancy. This means only that she might have a slight delay in giving me a calf. But, their fertility more than makes up for this. They also have a very long reproductive life! Many calves are weaned because they become orphans, their mothers dying after living a long & fruitful life into their 20's. Yes, she'll still give me a calf every year, starting at 18 months & going till she's in her 20's! And they are very docile & friendly. I can't go into my pasture w/out everyone coming up to see what's going on. They are careful w/ their horns, I would never deprive them of their horns. They protect their babies from predators very well, we had coyotes on the farm until we got Dexters, now we never see any. Dexters are also plentiful. There are several Dexter Yahoo groups where you can find out lots of info & can find people who have Dexters for sale at prices as good as you're going to find anywhere. I will tell you that these little boxes of gold are not dirt cheap. You won't get them for the same price as a used up dairy cow or a dairy steer. But then, you're not get

E. Hans
10/18/2008 9:42:17 AM
Why is it that everybody wants to shove grain at Dexters? They do NOT need it! I got them because I wanted to raise grass fed & (more importantly) finished beef! My herd does wonderfully on pasture alone! The only time they see a peice of 'grain' is if it's in the pasture on a grass plant & then they avoid it! Grain is NOT a natural feed for herbavores! It's the USDAs way of selling off the grain crop of BigAg. PLEASE don't ruin your wonderful Dexter meat & milk by giving them a food that is not natural to them!








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