Where does the Dexter come from?
The Dexter originated in the South Western region of Ireland. Like the Kerry, they are descended from the predominately black cattle of the early Celts.
The frequently heard theory that the Dexters are a comparatively new breed is a complete fallacy as the breed is fully described and mentioned by its proper name, in a report on Irish cattle written in 1845, by Mr David Low.
From this publication we learn that the breed owes its modern appearance, name, and probably qualities to a Mr Dexter who was agent to a Lord Hawarden (pronounced 'Harden') who came to Ireland in 1750 and made his home in Co Tipperary. David Low stated that a Mr Dexter had produced his curious breed by selection from the best of the hardy mountain cattle of the area, and to have succeeded to a very high degree.
Dexter cattle were first introduced into England in 1882, when ten Dexters were purchased by Mr. Martin. J. Sutton of Kidmore Grange, Oxfordshire from Mr. James. Robertson of La Mancha, Nr Malahide, Dublin. They were first shown at the Royal Show at Norwich in 1886.
By 1892, this native Irish breed was so well established in Great Britain that at a meeting of breeders at the Smithfield club on December 6th resulted in the formation of the Kerry and Dexter/Kerry cattle society.
What does the breed look like?
The Dexter breed is the smallest British breed of cattle. It is a dual-purpose breed, with the average weight of a cow being some 300 - 350 Kg's and standing 92cm - 107cm at the shoulder. There are two recognized types, short legged and non-short, both of which have their equal merits.
The breed comes in three colours, predominately black, but also red and dun.
Are they good mothers?
Dexter cows are extremely maternal and because of their dual purpose qualities will milk well.
Calving problems are rare and newly born calves are up on their feet very quickly.
Heifers mature young and can be put to the bull at 15 - 18 months of age.
Dexter's are noted for their longevity and should breed regularly for 14 years or more.
What about carcass quality?
The breed is early maturing. Beef of excellent quality and flavour, with good marbling, can be produced economically. Dexter steers can finish on grass at 20 -24 months of age without supplementary feeding, with average carcase weights of between 145 - 220 Kg's. Because their good meat to bone ratio, a killing-out percentage of over 56% can be achieved.
The meat is very popular with the consumer, though farm shops, farmers markets and home freezer consumption because of its outstanding flavour, small joints and minimal waste.
How good is their milk yield?
Milk yields vary as to whether the cows are kept for dairy cows, sucklers or house cows. For instance, the average daily milk yield for a house cow will be some 8 - 10 litres (2450 - 3050 litres per 305 day lactation). A cow kept as a suckler will raise its own calf as well as a larger commercial calf and do them both well. Dexters kept as dairy cows will yield on average, 10 - 12 litres daily (3050 - 3660 litres per 305 day lactation), with some individuals yielding 14 litres or more (4080 litres per 305 day lactation).
The milk is of very good quality with high butterfat (BF) and protein levels; average BF % is well over 4% and protein 3.51%.
Can Dexters crossbreed?
Mature cows can be successfully crossed with most native beef breeds, and will produce excellent fast growing progeny. Care must be taken if a continental bull is to be used. Ensure the bull has an easy calving record, and that cows are 'fit' and not overweight at calving.
The success of the Dexter breed
The success of the Dexter over the last 25 - 30 years is quite outstanding. The breed's ability to adapt to varying and extreme climatic conditions and to different systems of management is a typical characteristic. They have established themselves well in many parts of the world. Animals have been exported to Australia, New Zealand, Cuba, Argentina, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Germany. Several of these countries have their own breed societies, which only goes to show how well the breed has become established worldwide.
Truly, the small cow with the big future...