We first heard about Irish Dexter cattle while watching a program on television. It was 2004, and we had recently moved from the mountains of North Carolina to 10 acres in Virginia, between Richmond and Washington, D.C. Our property was only partially open, maybe 4 acres, with the rest in a wooded swamp. It was here we began our farming adventure with a batch of hatchery chicks and two Spanish wethers. Could we handle cattle too? The Irish Dexters seemed to be the perfect animal for small-scale farming.
We realized the cattle would have to wait as our goat herd increased with the addition of three does and a buck. We had no permanent livestock fencing. The goat learning curve was steep enough and during a summer trip we realized that what we really needed was a bit more grazing land, so we put the property up for sale and located a farm in Missouri that had everything we desired. We accepted an offer on the Virginia property the day we were moving west and took it as an auspicious sign-
Our 82 acre farm in Missouri was in dire need of fence repairs, maintenance and renovation. The big news was that it had actual grazing fields and paddocks that could support not only the goats but cattle as well. It was time to look into locating the Irish Dexters.
Why raise Irish Dexter cattle? Not only are they handsome cattle, but they are dual-purpose: they are great milkers and provide excellent beef. Irish Dexters need less space than full-sized cattle, are excellent mothers and produce lively calves. The cows we raise average 38 inches high at the hip, our bull is 44 inches at the hip. We wean our heifers at 5 months old and leave the steered bull calves with their dams. There is a market for Irish Dexters, and we sell our calves as registered breeding stock and as beeves.
I can easily milk a gallon from a cow while her calf watches and one-fourth will rise to cream (great for cheesemaking). With training, Dexter cows are gentle to milk. We butcher our beeves at 30 months old. This allows for their frames to be grown and filled out. No grain, just pasture. The beef cuts are petite, not fatty, and have a wonderful flavor not found in store-bought beef. A 780-pound liveweight Dexter will not overrun your freezer!
Seven years into our cattle project, we feel they are indeed the perfect breed for us. The market demand for them continues and we have no problem selling our calves as registered breeding livestock or for beef. There are wonderful national and state organizations that support Dexter cattle and promote the breed. American Dexter Cattle Association and Missouri Dexter Breeders Association are just two great sources of information.
We have learned many things about Irish Dexters — they can carry two genetic traits that need to be learned about: chondrodysplasia and pulmonary hypoplasia with anasarca, neither of which are unique to Irish Dexters. Identifying cattle who are carriers can allow owners to breed the carriers with non-carriers. Personally, I like “chondro-positive” cows as they are great animals and I will keep them in my herd. Dexters come with or without horns, and we prefer the horned variety. Polledness is a recent addition to Irish Dexters and currently 50% of new calves are polled. We do disbud our bull calves, but leave the horns on the girls.
Dexters are inquisitive, friendly, lively and long-lived. Cows can continue to calve in their upper teens and even twenties! Heifers are bred to have their first calf on their second birthday. Our bulls have been docile but we always respect the bulls, and cows too for that matter, as any animal has potential for unexpected actions. Consistent management practices and routine seem to work great for the Dexters. They quickly learn what you want them to do, where to go, etc. Given a little patience, they will get the idea.
We are now halter-training calves that we sell. At weaning, we put a halter on them and tie them in a safe location. They will quickly learn that backing up gets them nowhere, and this is the key element. After they are “trained to tie” then we can begin petting, brushing and later walking the calves around.
Getting ready to purchase cattle for the first time? First, make certain you have secure fencing. We cannot stress this single fact enough it seems. Irish Dexters do not need housing per se, but they do need a place to get out of the wind if your winter climate is cold. Yes, a cow can get by on an acre or two, but only if the forage is in excellent shape and nutritious. They may require additional hay. Do you know where to procure it and how to know if it is good? Can you provide water year round? Do you have a veterinarian who will help you learn about cattle care and preventive medicine? Will your vet come out to your property? How will you haul your animals?
The last tidbit is to look at the herds of several breeders before making your decision to buy. You will see the differences in management as well as differences in the animals themselves. Beware buying animals at the sale barn as you are buying someone else’s problems or culls — those animals are there for a reason. The more you know the better decisions you will make, and identifying breeders who are willing to provide “advice and service after the sale” will make your transition much smoother, helping you on the learning curve that always comes with a new adventure. Enjoy!
Photos by Mary Jane Phifer
Mary Jane Phifer is a heritage cattle farmer and owner of SteelMeadow Farm in Mansfield, Mo.
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