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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.

| March/April 1980

  • 062 Irish dexters2
    Irish Dexter mini cattle are compact, docile, and highly productive, though somewhat rare.

  • 062 Irish dexters2

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.)

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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