Ideal Small Farm Cows: Dexter Cattle

MOTHER's staff discovers a little-known but productive small-farm cow: Dexter cattle. These cows are a perfect project for children, produce quality milk and are a hardy breed that will thrive on a smaller homestead.
December 2001/January 2002
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Dexter cattle often have beautiful, curved horns.

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Learn about the ideal small farm cows: Dexter cattle.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS discovered the best small farm cows: Dexter cattle. Pound for pound, no bovine can match the diversity of Dexter cattle, one of the smallest cattle breeds. Standing just 36 to 44 inches at the shoulder, Dexters are the perfect old-fashioned, family cow. Gentle, versatile and economical, Dexters efficiently turn pasture into rich milk and lean meat, if you're so inclined. In recent years, interest in Dexter cattle has surged worldwide. Here's why:

They're the perfect size for the family homestead. One Dexter cow will give about 1 to 2 gallons of milk a day, a much more manageable amount for a single family than the 8 to 10 gallons a typical Holstein yields. If you raise a Dexter for beef, you'll need room in the freezer for about 400 pounds of meat, rather than 600 to 800 pounds you'd get from a typical full-size steer.

Owning a Dexter is like owning a piece of history and doing your part to help preserve genetic diversity. They are one of the world's smallest true breeds of cattle, not a miniature developed from a larger breed.

They are believed to have originated in Ireland, and were imported into the United States in the early 20th century. "When I think of Dexters, I think of little, small farms on postage stamps 100 years ago," says Drew Conroy, associate professor of applied animal science at the University of New Hampshire. Conroy says Dexters' small size has contributed to their numbers growing by leaps and bounds today. It also has been their biggest genetic disadvantage: Dexters, especially the smaller ones, are prone to a genetic disorder which occasionally causes cows to give birth to stillborn "bulldog calves," with deformed faces.

Looking after a Dexter can be fun for children and can give them a sense of accomplishment. With proper attention and training, a Dexter can be easily handled by even the greenest homesteader. Don't expect that dazed-cow stare, though. "For their small size, they're pretty lively," Conroy says. Dexters can be trained like oxen to plow or pull wagons, and their strength belies their size. At the same time, that size makes them less intimidating to children and adults.

Veterinarian Donald Bixby, executive director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, recently saw a demonstration of the Dexter's ability in the yoke. While attending a draft-animal workshop, he saw a woman put a 9-year-old Dexter steer into the yoke for the first time. "He stepped right off like he'd been born in it," Bixby said. "I was just amazed at what seemed like an innate willingness to do whatever she wanted."

Those who raise Dexters for beef report tender meat with excellent flavor. Grain-fed Dexters will yield 250 pounds at 12 months, and 475 to 500 pounds at 24 months, dressing at about 60 percent of their live weight. These results can be obtained by supplemental feeding of only 5 to 7 pounds of grain per day for the last two to three months. Grass-fed animals yield about 55 percent of their live weight.

Dexter cows produce about 1 1/2 to 2 gallons a day of about 4 percent butterfat milk — over a full 305-day lactation-when fed for production. (Some exceptional cows can put out up to 5 gallons per day at the height of their lactation.) The fat globules in Dexter milk are very small, which makes the milk more easily digested. The cream easily separates and makes outstanding butter and ice cream.

When producing just for the calf, the cow's milk production will adjust down to the calf's needs. Many small farmers share the milk output with the calf — two quarters for the calf at each feeding and two quarters for the milk pail. Dexters have also been used successfully as "nurse cows," providing milk to two or three calves.

Dexters are a hardy breed that performs well in a variety of climates. In North America, Dexters are raised from Alaska to Florida. Many breeders note that all the Dexter needs is a place to get out of the wind and sun. Many animals even prefer to stay outside in the snow in the middle of winter instead of going into the barn.

Easy and economical to keep, a Dexter consumes about half of what an Angus or Hereford would under the same conditions. A half acre of good green grass per animal, or 12 to 15 pounds of hay and a little grain each day is enough in temperate climates. The cattle are ideal for grazing on older or overgrown pastures.

The cows usually give birth without assistance, and using a calf puller is virtually unknown with Dexters. Calves weigh about 45 pounds at birth, and by the time there weaned at 7 months, they may weigh between 350 and 500 pounds. Both sexes will continue to grow until 5 or 6 years old. Some Dexters have lived to more than 20, and many continue to calve for more than 15 years.

Although they are predominantly black, Dexters also come in dun and red. A horned breed, they have dramatic white horns tipped in black at maturity, although some owners choose to dehorn their animals for safety reasons.

"Dexters are not going to take over the feedlots," says Conroy, "but they are good for people with small farms, like me."

For a list of breeders and more information about Dexters, contact:
American Dexter Cattle Association
Concordia, MO
The Purebread Dexter Cattle Association of North America

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Post a comment below.


3/13/2015 9:49:19 AM
what other breed of cattle can you breed to with a dexter bull

9/12/2010 12:25:11 PM
My family only has about 2 acres of level land. Would this be enough to raise a Dexter cow and calf? Also, where what price range should I be looking at for purchasing a Dexter?

8/22/2010 9:38:59 PM
I have a 2 year old dexter what other breeds can I breed with her

7/8/2010 10:24:38 AM
I have two dexters, my bull has a white and black face is it because he's mixed with something else? I bought him and the cow at the same time and he was already 1 1/2 yrs old and the cow was 3 yrs old. She aborted her calf about 2 months premature, should I be concerned about that happening again and what, if anything, can I do to prevent it from happening again? They are penned together.

Sharon King
8/15/2009 10:14:36 AM
Cows are herd animals, so they really like being around other cows. The biggest concern is whether you have horned animals mixed in because our horned cow is definitely "boss" over our dehorned one! I was concerned about this thinking that I would not be able to detect heat for them because the younger, dehorned cow wouldn't get close enough to the other--boy, was I wrong--when it came time for heat, they were licking on each other and 'riding' each other just as the books say they should! We've had a goat in with our Dexters with no trouble, though haven't tried horses--they have pretty easy going personalities though so I think you'd have no trouble. Good luck with your venture!

4/22/2009 10:00:42 AM
I want to have a heard of Dexters. i have a few questions about them. Do they get alone with each other, if a few of them are in the same pen, at a time? Do they get along with horses and mules?

4/22/2009 9:52:53 AM
I want to have a heard of Dexters. i have a few questions about them. Do they get alone with each other, if a few of them are in the same pen, at a time? Do they get along with horses and mules?

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