Or….WHY WE LOVE OUR DEXTERS!
I get asked a lot of questions about keeping a Dexter as a family cow, and always end up telling people I love my Dexters. And it’s true…I’ve been stricken with a disease known as “Dexteritis”. There are so many good things about this little breed that it’s hard not to fall in love with them! Although there are some issues with the breed that you need to watch out for, Dexters are definitely a prime choice for a homestead cow. If you’re new to this family cow thing and wondering if a Dexter might be the cow for you, read on to learn what this diminuitive breed has to offer. Here are some reasons you may want to choose Dexters for your homestead.
Feed Efficient, Triple-Purpose Cattle
Dexters are the only small, “family-sized” cattle I know of that were developed specifically as a triple-purpose animal. They are bred to be producers of milk, meat and muscle power, all in a feed efficient package. Though few people use draft animals anymore, a Dexter can make a good one. With their calm, gentle disposition, good mind and spunk they can be trained to pull & do their share of work on the family farm. This is something we haven’t done yet, but there are other knowledgable owners who could be of help if you’re interested in training a draft Dexter. Our main interest thus far has been with milk & meat production. A good Dexter cow will produce enough milk to keep the average family happy and still raise a strapping, healthy calf. They are good mothers & seldom have calving difficulties. Bull calves can be raised as beef steers and produce a nice freezer-full of meat, while there is always a demand for quality heifers to help pay for the hobby.
While a Dexter will not produce as much milk as a Jersey, nor as much beef as a Lowline Angus, they will, on a grass-fed diet, produce both sufficiently enough to provide for your family. With a good quality forage Dexters do not need much in the way of concentrates, and they seem to enjoy doing their share of “bush-hogging”…..browsing & mowing their way through weeds, brush & bramble. It amazes me what they’ll eat sometimes!
Size, Temperament & Hardiness
Dexters come in a very user-friendly size, the majority being between 38″-46″ tall. Anything much smaller than that and you have to stand on your head to milk it, and I can just barely fit the Surge belly-milker underneath about a 40″ cow. Of course, a larger animal will produce more beef, but Dexters are traditionally supposed to be smaller statured. They also are known for a gentle, easy-going disposition. I have found that while definitely friendly, gentle & trainable, my Dexters are NOT passive about life. They have considerable “personality” and opinions, and they’ll attack life head-on. No sitting back & letting life happen to you….that may be OK for Jerseys, but not for these girls! The Dexters are quite hardy, sure-footed animals. They enjoy tearing up & down the rocky hillside like a bunch of mountain goats, displaying their great agility. I have twice been quite worried by 2-day old bull calves who ducked the fence & took off straight up what basically amounts to a cliff-face. Both times I scrambled up to “rescue” the little bugger, laying him across my lap & sliding back down on my butt! Not sure they needed rescuing, but it made me feel better. We have hardly had any health problems with our Dexters. A natural lifestyle & nutritious diet seems to keep them healthy & happy, and they do great even in bad weather. They grow a thick, wooly winter coat which keeps them so well insulated that snow will pile up on their backs. They hardly seem to notice the cold, and while having appropriate shelter is necessary, they certainly don’t need pampered.
Issues to Consider
Now on to the less glamorous side of things. Probably due to the “rare-breed” status Dexters have (being listed with ALBC), and to their “cuteness factor”, the breed has ended up with some poor genetics in this country. For too many years there were too many people breeding toward quantity instead of quality, who were breeding any ol’ animal instead of culling….just because it was a Dexter. Now we have a few too many unfit udders, bad temperaments, and poor legs running around, as well as two lethal genes. These are the things you need to watch out for, so do your homework before you shop. A responsible breeder should be mindful of their herd’s genetics, working for the preservation of the breed in it’s original form and for the improvement of the current genetic pool. They should be able to show you the good and bad points of their animals, as well as important DNA test results.
Probably most important of these would be results for chondro & PHA tests. Chondrodysplasia and PHA (pulmonary hypoplasia with anasarca) are the two lethal genetic mutations Dexter breeders must contend with. In either case, heterozygous animals carry one copy of the gene and can live a normal life, but two carriers bred together can produce a homozygous calf….which WILL be a dead calf. There are hair-sample DNA tests, which are fairly inexpensive, easily available for both these mutations. In my opinion, there is NO excuse for a serious breeder of these heritage cattle to not have the tests run for these deadly conditions.
Also be wary of any “Dexter” breeder who tells you that they are breeding in their herd strictly for beef characteristics, or strictly for dairy-type (though that is less common than the beef). If that is their breeding plan, then they’re not breeding true Dexters….which are supposed to be DUAL-PURPOSE. If you want to breed for strictly beef then go getcha’ some Lowlines, and if you want to breed for strictly dairy then go getcha’ some Jerseys….because obviously you don’t want Dexters! (a-hem….sorry…overtaken by passion for MY breed) However, for those of us who DO want a truly multi-purpose cattle breed for our homesteads, you see now how well the wonderful, little Dexter fits the bill.