The Dexter is perhaps known for its small stature. They are one of the world’s smallest bovine breeds and they originate from the South and South West of the country.
They are a dual-purpose breed, meaning they are used for both milk and beef production. They are a feral breed, meaning they are wild and scare very easily. They were originally kept in the mountainous regions by small landowners. This led to them being given the name “poorman’s cow”.
They are very similar in genetics to the Kerry cow, bar their smaller stature. Both breeds are descendants of the ancient Celtic tribes' black cattle of the past.
The first ever herd book on the breed was printed in 1890, with records of the breed going back to 1879. The earliest ever record of the breed goes back to 1845, making them quite an old breed.
Their name comes from a ‘Mister Dexter’ who came to Ireland in the mid-1700s and settled in Dundrum County Tipperary. Here he bred and then developed the breed through careful selection. This led to the recent conservation efforts in the Dundrum area, to reintroduce the breed.
There are only about 2,000 Dexter cattle in Ireland. The breed was almost pushed to extinction in the last century, and during the 1970s Dexter cattle were classified as an endangered and ‘rare’ breed. However, they’ve luckily regained their popularity in the last few decades.
As mentioned the Dexter breed are quite small. In fact when calves are born they weigh just over 20-25kgs, making them smaller than the average dog. Cows are on average between 38-42 inches in height, and weigh up to a maximum of 370kgs. Bulls meanwhile can weigh anywhere up to 600-700kgs and are between 38-44 inches in height. An average cow is approximately one third of the size of a typical Friesian cow.
The Dexter breed are usually Red, Black or Dun in colour. Red cattle must be born of DNA’d red parents or be DNA verified to be registered as Reds. They breed can also be found to have white on the udder or vulva of a cow or the penis or testicles of the bull.
The Dexter are also horned animals, meaning almost every calf is born with horns. In recent years though, polled versions of the breed have begun to emerge.
They are known for their docile nature, hardiness, and thriftiness. They are also very easy calvers and carry out labour without assistance. The breed are used for both beef and dairy as well as oxen.
The breed, due to it’s durability, can adapt to the harshest of Ireland’s landscapes. They can be bred in mountainous regions and are known to eat unwanted vegetation of weeds. They can survive well in all pasture-based climates and when given adequate feed, they can thrive in any climate. Their small size makes them very suitable for farmers with smaller farms, as it enables them to double stock their land.
The Dexter's calm, gentle nature and natural curiosity have given them the honor of being labeled the ideal family cow. The breed is enjoyed by all ages and genders, as they are less intimidating than traditional beef breeds.
Dexter bulls are known to produce excellent crosses with traditional beef breeds. This is because they reduce stress in first calving heifers. A cross-bred calf usually grows to â the size of a dam. Dexters require about one half the feed and space of larger breeds making them perfect for the small landholder.
Dexter calves, as mentioned, are born easily, and they are quick to get to their feet with little or no human assistance. They grow rapidly on their mother's rich milk and soon are eating grass and grain with the adults. Dexters are a long-lived breed and are fertile at a very early age; care must be taken that very young heifers are not accidentally exposed to the bull.
Dexter cows have great mothering instincts, which helps protect against predators. Dexter cows are able to raise two calves at a time in many cases! Although they’re docile with pleasant temperaments, they can still be aggressive when guarding their young.
Cows can begin mating at around 15-18 months of age and can calve into their mid-teens. Their lifespan is usually about 25 years in total
The Dexter meat is famed for its spider marbling and distinctly darker colour. Their small size allows for tender and flavorsome meat. Their carcasses weigh in at about 145-220kg, and despite their small size, they can often achieve a killing-out percentage of well above 56%. This is due to a good ratio of meat against waste products like fat and bone.
Beef from Dexters is of excellent quality with a high dress-out percentage, providing a greater yield of lean, tender, tasty meat.
The fat globules in Dexter milk are very small, which makes the milk more easily digested and is recommended for people with digestive problems. An exceptional cow can produce five gallons (23 L) per day of 4% butterfat milk, average cows yield 2-3 gallons per day (9 to 13 litres).
Dexter cows can actually produce more than two gallons of milk per day and the milk produced is special A2 milk. This milk is filled with extra nutrients and vitamins and has been found to help a range of different ailments in humans, such as asthma, eczema and many others.
Their milk is very highly regarded, with dairy-bred Dexters producing almost 3660 litres per lactation. In fact, some Dexters have been known to produce a staggering 4080 litres! Their milk has a butterfat content of 4%, with protein levels of about 3.5%.
Due to their small size, the breed does encounter some health problems. They often are affected by Chondrodysplasia, which is an issue causing dwarfism. This trait is mostly harmless, though when two with the same trait are bred together, this can result in the 1 in 4 pregnancies being prematurely aborted.
Dexter cattle can also suffer from PHA (Pulmonary Hypoplasia with Anasarca). This results in malformed lungs that can fill with fluid, and affects unborn calves. DNA testing is the only way to detect the issue, and Dexter’s that carry the gene should not be bred with each other.
One of the world’s smallest cattle breeds, who knew they hailed from the Emerald Isle! Irish Recent years have seen Dexter numbers slowly creeping back up to where they were in Ireland. Who wouldn’t want a self-calving breed?
Don’t forget to check out our video on one of Ireland’s and Europe’s biggest Dexter farms on our website next week.