Running the highly-renowned Ballyboley Dexter herd is a family affair for Stephen and Lorraine Alexander and their daughters - Naomi and Hannah and son, Matthew.
Based in the heart of Greyabbey, Ards Peninsula, Co. Down, 2019 will make the tenth anniversary of the herd which now comprises of forty pedigree-registered Dexter cattle including fifteen spring-calving breeding females.
The easy-calving low maintenance breed proved a “perfect choice” for the Alexanders, who went in search of a breed that was suitable for their first-generation part-time farm.
“We were drawn to the fact that they are a small breed which was perfect to get the whole family involved and to begin showing/farming with cattle.”
“The cattle thrive on lesser-quality rough grazing and produce great quality beef and there was a widening market for this beef,” Stephen explained to Catherina Cunnane of That’s Farming.
Laying the Foundation
To sow a fruitful seed for the herd, foundational females were sourced from the herd of Ballyhartfield Dexters, Templepatrick, Co. Antrim. To expand Ballyboley Dexters and to maintain and improve its genetic merit, the Alexanders sought breeding animals with specific criteria - show potential and promising bloodlines.
“We started with two heifers and gradually grew our herd through breeding and careful selection of animals to buy in.” Stephen outlined.
“Our most recent purchases have done well on the show circuit this year; they carry bloodlines from the original Dexter herd at Belfast Zoo when the breed was an endangered species some 40 years ago.”
Premium Beef Production
Today, the Alexander family breed Dexters for showing and premium beef production - the grass-fed beef is sold directly to customers as ‘Ballyboley Dexter’.
The Dexters dominate a 45-acre holding where grazing areas are classed as ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and ‘Area of Special Conservation’.
“Our cattle are outdoor reared; grass-fed and do not receive concentrated feed - the land is free from artificial fertilisers and pesticides.”
“We farm alongside the environment and aim to be self-sufficient with the land we have,” Stephen added.
The Alexanders breed high-end bulls which are sold to farmers both north and south of the border.
Females from superior cow families are retained as replacements, while heifers that are unsuitable for breeding are slaughtered at 24-months at a local family-run abattoir and then butchered by butchers in Newtownards.
The herd utilises a stockbull and AI to introduce new blood to the herd, with bulls selected on the basis of their linear classification; genetics are sourced within Ireland and the UK.
“We aim to breed animals that meet the breed standard and focus on maintaining the integrity and strength of the breed.”
“We look for a flat top line; a good tail set and nice square body. We prefer to show the short-legged dexters but have some lovely non-short cattle in our herd which are perfect for producing the slightly bigger beef animals.”
The herd, which is a member of The Dexter Cattle Society (UK and Ireland Group); the Northern Ireland Dexter Cattle Society and the Dexter Cattle Society Pedigree Beef Certification Scheme made its debut on the show circuit in 2009 - the year it was established.
Several top accolades have been claimed at numerous shows, with 2018 being viewed as the family’s most successful year to date.
One of their major highlights to date is the herd’s performance at Balmoral Show in May of this year, where Ballykeel Una claimed first-place in the cow with calf at foot class.
Ballykeel Eve third-prize in the in-calf heifer class and Ballykeel Una and Ballykeel Eve claimed top honours in the category for Dexter pairs.
Moving to Antrim Randox National Dexter Show July 2018, Ballykeel Una (Cow with calf at foot) was awarded the Breed Champion sash; the Reserve Champion Calf title was picked up by Ballyboley Ivy (Heifer calf under a year) and the family took home first prize in the Dexter Pairs category with Ballykeel Una and Ballykeel Valentina.
In the cow with calf at foot class, first-prize went to Ballykeel Una and second-place was secured Ballykeel Valentina, while Ballyboley Ivy rose to the top in the Heifer calf under 12-months class and Ballyboley Irwin stood second in his class - bull calf under 12-months.
The Alexander family aim to continue to raise the profile of the Dexter breed and promote their beef as a premium local product, with an aim to encourage consumers to support local businesses and farms.
“We will continue to promote our herd through our social media platforms as well as attending local shows to let the public meet our cows!” Stephen concluded.
“Dexters are becoming more popular and their meat is also extremely popular favoured by many celebrity chefs and top restaurants,” Stephen concluded.
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