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Dexter Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Irish native Dexter cows are best raised as a family cow instead of part of a large herd, and breeders should also be aware of “dwarf factor” genetics.

| July 2010

  • Dexter heifer
    When this Dexter heifer has a calf, she'll probably produce 1 to 2 gallons of milk a day.
    Photo: American Dexter Cattle Association
  • Dexter bull
    Dexter cattle, even bulls such as this one, are easy to handle and cheap to feed. Two Dexters can be bred at different times to produce a year-round supply of milk for about as much money and care as one large-sized cow.
    American Dexter Cattle Association

  • Dexter heifer
  • Dexter bull

Dexter cattle make good homestead cows, known for both both its milk and meat production that is well-suited to a family.  This heritage livestock breed are known for their small stature, but shouldn't be counted out just because they aren't the biggest body in the herd! The remains of Dexter-sized cattle have been found at Stonehenge and may represent the common size and type of Iron Age cattle in Britain and Ireland. In more recent times, some farmers may have purposefully chosen the smaller Kerry stock, just as choices were made between a dairy or beefy type. A visitor to County Cork in 1810 noted that the local farmers preferred “small beasts” because they were hardier and better suited to the land. The first recorded description of the Dexter breed appeared in 1845. Lord Hawarden’s estate agent, or manager, on Valentia Island in County Kerry, a Mr. Dexter, had developed a strain based on the local mountain cattle. As a breeder, Dexter’s goal was a small, dual-purpose household cow. There have been suggestions that Devon cattle were also used in the breed’s development. One observer of the time described these new Dexter cattle as “curious.” The Dexter soon established a foothold in southern Ireland.

In 1882, Dexter cattle were brought to England, mainly as a “curiosity.” Because the Dexter was believed to be a smaller version of the Kerry, they were included together in the Kerry and Dexter cattle societies and their respective herd books in Ireland, England, and North America. The two breeds would not have separate registries until 1919 in Ireland. Meanwhile, little distinction was made between the two breeds, and Kerry cows were frequently mated to Dexter bulls.

The Irish government never supported Dexter breeding efforts as it did the Kerry, but the Dexter was an attractive and practical cow that found favor in the country and abroad. By 1925 in Britain, there were more than 1,100 registered cows in almost 70 herds. The breed suffered setbacks in the 1930s and 1940s but has made a comeback. The British population is now about 2,800. An official upgrading procedure is allowed in the registry. In recent years, some breeders used outside blood from the Aberdeen Angus and Jersey, and Welsh Black may have been introduced in the past.

The first recorded American imports of Dexter cattle, numbering about 200, were made from 1905 to 1915. Because the Kerry had made its way to North America much earlier, it is possible that the Dexter came as well, especially since the conveniently sized Dexter was also used as a milk-producer aboard oceangoing ships. Three large Dexter herds were established in New York, Minnesota, and Kentucky early in the twentieth century. Two modern herds can trace their roots directly back to two of these foundation herds. When the Kerry no longer recorded new registrations after 1920, the registry name was changed to the American Dexter Cattle Association. Additional Dexters were imported after 1950. Although only 75 Dexters were registered in 1970, numbers have steadily grown since then. There were 500 registrations in 1990, and the United States population may be as high as 3,000 today. The American registry does not allow upgrading, but registers by pedigree only.

The first 55 Dexters were brought into Canada after 1960. Doris Crowe of Canada made another significant import in 1982, and these cattle made important contributions to the breed in North America. The Canadian Dexter Cattle Association was founded in 1986, quickly registering 400 cattle. The Canadian registry now receives about 110 to 120 animals a year. The population is estimated at 600 to 700.

Dexters have also been exported to Australia, Argentina, Europe, New Zealand, and South Africa. South African breeders favor the taller dairy-type animal and they nowhave a population of about 1,200 dun or black Dexters.

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