Heritage Livestock - Kerry Cattle

A Realistic Assessment of Kerry Cattle

We have had our Kerry cattle for just over two years.
My wife and I originally bought them for an integrated dairy production project on two different family farms.  The plan was that our neighbors would keep them and milk them along with their dairy cows on their farm, while we would raise heifers and feed out the steers for beef on our farm.

Josie - A Crossbred Kerry Heifer

Josie – A Crossbred Kerry Heifer

The plan did not work because of the extremely low milk production. The Kerries weren’t earning their keep. Lately we have been trying to figure out what practical place Kerry cows might have both on our farm and in 21st century America.

The Good

  • Kerry cattle are small but are not dwarfs.They are not nearly as small as many Dexters. The larger size is an advantage for those who do not have a reliable means to sell direct to consumers and must sell feeders or finished beef through traditional livestock markets.
  • Excellent feed efficiency. Kerry Cattle eat about 25%-30% as much feed as a Holstein and maybe 50% -70% as much feed as a modern commercial Angus.
  • Kerry cattle are tame if handled right
  • In crossing with other breeds, the sold black color is very dominant. Black cattle can bring a premium in traditional livestock markets of 12%-30% over other colors of cattle.
  • Extreme longevity. There are verified instances of 20 year old Kerry cows having calves
  • Their primitive DNA may provide some unique disease immunity. There was initial research in Britain that no Dexter or Kerry cow was ever slaughtered for BSE. But this was never fully researched.
  • Beef flavor was traditionally well regarded.
  • Small birth weights. A smaller calf means less calving assistance by the herdsman in order for a calf to be born.
  • High rates of A2 beta casein. A2 beta casein is a source of controversy at present in some dairy circles. Most diary cattle in the US do not carry the gene for A2 beta casein.
  • Kerry have only a very distant relationship to other breeds of cattle. This maximizes the advantage of heterosis in crossing with more mainstream breeds.
Kerry Cattle Are Friendly If Handled Properly

Kerry Cattle Are Friendly If Handled Properly

The Bad

  • Most Kerry cattle in North American today come from one single importation from Ireland to Canada. The gene pool in North America is very limited. All Kerry cattle in North America are closely related.
  • From at least 1919 onward, the majority of Kerry breeders in Ireland and England were aristocrats. The landed gentry kept Kerries as prestigious estate cows. Kerry cattle have not really been bred for milk production or improvement for at least 90 years. This is a serious problem today, as most North American Kerry cattle breeders are keeping them for their rarity or heritage, and not for milk production.
  • Our direct experience with milk production was an abysmal 15 pounds per day (that’s less than two gallons a day) over a 180 day lactation. Modern dairy cows have a lactation of at least 305 days. Even for many home dairies, or people keeping a single family cow, this is just not enough milk. It is milk enough for a calf and maybe a half gallon a day for the table or kitchen. Certainly not enough milk to make getting pooped on and occasionally kicked worthwhile.
  • Kerry cattle are a genetic dead end. There is no consistency of owner expectations about the future niche of these cows.
  • There is not enough modern data on crossbred performance. Crossbred performance is the heart of modern day beef production and becoming common in dairy cattle breeding. Many of the 100 year old reports of crossbreeding Kerry outcomes are useless. This is because every other breed of cattle crossed onto a Kerry has changed since then.
  • Likewise, 100 year old beef flavor reports are useless. Consumer tastes and cooking methods have changed drastically in 100 years. Beef was once judged on the quality of joints for roasting. Most Americans today either eat hamburger or char grilled steaks. This is further complicated by the fact that beef flavor is probably a factor of feed and post slaughter handling as much as the breed.
Flora - A Pet Kerry Heifer Crossbred

Flora – A Pet Kerry Heifer Crossbred


Heritage Livestock -Dexter Cattle

Dexter Cattle Flaw – Bad Feet

Typical Dexter Flaw - Bad Feet

Typical Dexter Flaw – Bad Feet

The calf in the center of the above photo is a year old purebred Dexter steer.
He has the typically overgrown “elf booties” feet that are a major flaw of the breed. Follow the red arrow in the picture and notice how his hooves are fluted, pointy  and upturned.

The steer calf has NEVER been kept on concrete and is kept on good, dry pasture with two slightly younger Kerry Simmental cross heifers that have perfectly normal feet for their age. Compare his hooves to the hooves of the calf on the left.
Notice how her hooves are shorter, wider, thicker and more balanced?

A neighbor who runs hundreds of cattle on nearly a thousand acres, stopped by the farm the other day and remarked that our little steer has the worst feet he ever saw in an animal so young.
I laughed and replied, “You just ain’t seen enough Dexters.”

Hooves On A 1 Year-Old Dexter Steer

Hooves On A 1 Year-Old Dexter Steer

And that’s true enough, because it’s hard to believe that one breed of cattle – heritage or otherwise – can have so many faults until you actually see lots of them together in one place from many different breeders.
Last June my husband got a chance to do just that when he attended  the National Dexter Cattle Show and Sale in Fort Wayne Indiana to meet with other Dexter breeders. He was appalled by what he saw there, and until this day he still calls that 3 day affair the “Bad Feet and Bad Udder” show.

The faults of both bad feet and poor udders are a plague on most strains of Dexter cattle.
Both faults can be corrected through intensive culling. But sadly very few Dexter owners are willing to ruthlessly cull inferior animals due to ignorance and financial considerations.

Many Dexter cattle are sold to new and not so new homesteaders and small holders who want a smaller “dual purpose” animal, but have very little experience with dairy or beef cattle breeding and husbandry.
Folks, there are no satisfactory “dual purpose” cattle.
The old saying,  “dual purpose doesn’t do much of either purpose very well” is for the most part true. Inexperienced people simply don’t know that and “backyard breeders” are doing precious little to improve the Dexter breed as a whole.
Truth is for most people who are simply looking for a family milk cow, Dexters are way over priced, eat too much for their size and are frankly over hyped. As beef cattle they still eat too much, and take a long time to bring to slaughter weight especially if you are buying feed.
Don’t let the small size fool you, Dexter cattle are not feed efficient animals, nor are they cattle for people of modest means or families on a budget.

Now I know my opinion isn’t going to make me real popular with other Dexter breeders or homesteaders who’ve always dreamed of owning a “dual purpose” Dexter for milk and for beef.
But don’t get me wrong about Dexter cattle – I’m simply the messenger.
Dexters do have a real place on certain homesteads and garden farms. But do not believe everything you read about them on the internet.
Sometime in the future I’ll try to write more about Dexter cattle and why I sold most of my herd.