Mini-Cattle: The Amazing Irish Dexter

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PHOTO: RANDY KIDD
Irish Dexter mini cattle are compact, docile, and highly productive, though somewhat rare.

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.