Dexter Cattle

During the last 20 years or so there’s been an increased interest in smaller cattle for homesteads. The most popular breed of little cattle at present in the U.S. is Dexter cattle. Dexter cattle are a minor breed and do have a place on many small farms and homesteads.

As a former Dexter breeder and owner, it always surprises people that I don’t routinely recommend Dexters to homesteaders. There are many reasons for this.

Feeding Dexter Cattle

Dexter Cattle

For starters there is no such thing as a uniform type of Dexter. Many people don’t realize it but Dexter cattle come in a few dissimilar types. There is no one breed standard. Some Dexter breeders breed for a beef type of animal. Fewer Dexter breeders breed for a dairy type. Worse yet, too many back-yard Dexter breeders are breeding cattle for “cuteness”.  Trust me on this: it is not a very good reason to breed cattle.
We are not talking about pet dogs or cats – we’re talking about livestock.

The lack of a breed standard is made worse and is seriously aggravated by the fact that at present there are three different Dexter breed registries in the U.S. The three registries have fostered a tremendous amount of infighting and back-biting among Dexter breeders and between the registries themselves.

Many people who buy Dexters are not knowledgeable about the breed or are ignorant about cattle in general. When compared to other types of cattle – either beef or dairy – Dexters are expensive to purchase and are not budget friendly for the average homesteader of modest means. Moreover, many breeders market Dexters as a feed efficient animal that can be finished solely on grass.
That’s not exactly true.

Hanging Dexter Beef

Dexter Beef

While it is true that some Dexters owners do try to keep their cattle on poor pasture, it is not true that beeves managed in such a way produce a meat carcass that is acceptable to most people. If you have poor or marginal pastures Highland cattle are probably a better way to go.

For their body weight Dexters eat more than what you’d suppose and give less milk than what you’d expect. Because of their smaller size Dexters don’t do as well at the sale barn as other cattle. Dexter breeders are often forced to find a direct sale for their beef because of this market prejudice.

That said, because Dexters are a small animal they have a couple of distinct advantages for the homesteader or small holder. For people with limited pasture space or meager pasture a Dexter will do better than some other types of cattle. Because they are smaller they are easier on facilities. Dexters if treat properly can be very friendly and affectionate and easily handled.

Dexter Cattle

A Group of Young Dexters

Of all the minor breeds of cattle, Dexters are the most mainstream. This is an advantage when buying Dexters but is also a mixed bag for breeding Dexters. Because of their smaller size a Dexter heifer or cow cannot be bred to just any breed of bull. She must be serviced by a small breed of bull. This is especially true of first time heifers. Due to the popularity of Dexters, it isn’t hard to find a Dexter bull. Also Dexter semen is readily available should you decide to go the AI route for breeding. I recommend AI for people who are just keeping a few cows. Dexters, like all cattle, benefit from an intelligent and well thought out breeding program.

If you decide that Dexters are a breed of cattle that you’d like to own, just keep kind in mind that there are a couple of genetic traits that you’ll want to avoid like the plague. The first and most serious genetic fault is known as a “bulldog calf”. A bulldog calf is actually called chondrodysplasia. It is a lethal genetic mutation and is form of dwarfism. Another genetic mutation is known as a “water baby”. This is the folk term for pulmonary hypoplasia with anasarca (PHA). PHA in cattle is a condition where there is an incomplete formation of the lungs. The fetus or calf has a monstrous swollen and bloated appearance due to water retention. Such calves often weigh twice what they should. Many such calves are never born alive, but unfortunately PHA can cause life-threatening and dangerous calving difficulties.
Both conditions are problems in some strains of Dexters. Thankfully both syndromes are being limited today by genetic testing. Two pet peeves that I have with Dexter cattle is their feet and udders. But both faults can be corrected with culling and selective breeding. Just be on the look out when you are buying Dexter cattle – or any cattle for that matter.

Goat or Cow? Choosing The Right Homestead Dairy Animal

Goat or cow? My husband and I have a mixed marriage. He’s a “goat person” and I’m not. He loves goats and if it were up to him this farm would be positively overrun with them.

I on the other hand don’t really like goats; either dairy goats or meat goats. My problem with dairy goats is that I can’t stand to drink the milk because of the taste. It’s a crying shame really. My aversion to goat’s milk colors my perspective on an entire species.  It’s a classic case of sour grapes; or goaty milk in this instance.

The photo below of me, and Katie the dairy goat, is a joke photo for my husband’s benefit. Katie loves me but she hasn’t figured out that I don’t love her back.

Alpine Dairy Goat

Me & Katie The Goat

To my way of thinking goats are more trouble than they’re worth. You need fences that will hold water to maintain goats. And when they escape (and they will!) you can be assured that they’ll head straight for the most valuable plants in the garden or clear out the window boxes. Not to mention that keeping a Billy goat can be a real challenge because of the way they smell. And they do smell! But what else would you expect from an animal who routinely and purposely pees on his beard to make himself attractive to the opposite sex?

I love writing about dairy goats because I’m guaranteed to get a knee jerk reaction from evangelical goat people who feel either misunderstood or called to preach the Gospel of Goats. From my point of view, goat people just don’t seem to appreciate that not everyone likes goats or cares for the taste of goat milk. The unsolicited advice that I’ve received over the years regarding goat milk has been endlessly entertaining.

Goat lovers will insist that goat milk is very fragile and must be handled with particular care to ensure that there’s no “off taste” to the milk. Well that’s actually true. Goat milk will readily pick up barn odors faster than cow’s milk.
In fact when it comes to handling fresh goat milk, I’ve found that the best way to cool down a small amount of milk fast is with a Cuisinart ice cream maker. The freezer bowl cools the milk quicker than a standard stainless steel bulk tank and results in perfect Grade “A” milk. A  Cuisinart ice cream maker is really a good investment if you milk just one goat. Not to mention that you can make ice cream with one.

I think there’s some type of genetic component in the ability to taste “goatieness” in fluid milk. It’s kind of like the ability to roll your tongue. Not everybody can roll their tongue. Maybe the goat milk taste thing is all in the genes. I’m not alone in objecting to the taste of goat milk. Many people can taste the difference between Grade “A” goat milk and cow’s milk.
I think in general, that if you are like me and hate goat milk, you may be better off with a very low producing family cow.

Kerry Dairy Cow

Olga – A Kerry Cow & A Low Producer

But a cow unlike a goat represents a very large financial investment and personal commitment. You’d be hard pressed in my part of Pennsylvania to pick up a dairy cow or young heifer for less than $900.
And once you have that cow she must be housed, fed, cleaned up after and she needs periodic veterinary care. A cow needs at least 2 to 4 acres of fenced pasture to be happy.
Not to mention she needs to be bred so that she can give milk. Most single cow families will elect to borrow a bull; or ship the cow to a neighbor who has a bull; or have the cow artificially inseminated.
Believe me all 3 of those options have benefits and drawbacks.

My advice to most people thinking about a home dairy animal is this:

Try fresh goat milk to see if you like it. If you do great! Get the nicest goat you can afford and enjoy her and her milk. Dairy goats range in price from upwards of $150, with about $180-$225 being the going rate at present. Be sure to taste the milk before buying a fresh goat. Sweet feed and good clean hay go a long way in making decent milk.

Hand Milking A Goat

Milking A Dairy Goat

A dairy goat is the almost always the best choice for a small homestead or backyard garden farm. A good dairy goat will often produce well over a gallon of milk a day. That’s plenty of milk for cheese, cooking and for table use.

All babies (human or animal) thrive on goat milk. Even chicks bloom and grow faster with a small amount of goat’s milk. And nothing I know of will fatten a pig faster than corn and goat milk. For years I kept dairy goats just to feed the milk to other livestock. Goat kidding was timed to occur about 2 weeks before lambing season. That way I never had to buy expensive milk replacer for orphan lambs and always had plenty of milk on hand if the opportunity arose to buy day old dairy calves or weaned piglets.

Lamb Drinking Goat Milk

Bottle Lamb Drinking Fresh Goat Milk

You may have some trouble making butter with goat milk because the cream doesn’t readily separate. But no matter. With a good homestead dairy goat, you’ll have the means to make the best feta cheese that you’ve ever eaten, and the resource  to create creamy skin soothing goat milk soaps.

But if you’re like me and can’t stand the taste of goat milk you really only have a couple of options for a homestead dairy animal. If you have  a large family and  good pasture; and have the time and inclination to make cheese and butter a cow is the way to go.
A popular way to keep a family cow is to buy a low producing cow, and let her keep her calf for half the day. That way you don’t have to milk twice a day and you still get lots of milk. You’ll have the benefit of a calf that will grow for meat. Or if it’s a heifer calf you can sell her once she’s weaned.

If money is no object and you already know something about cattle, Dexter and Kerry cows are popular with many homesteaders. Both breeds are extremely low milk producers and might be a good home dairy option if you can find them.
But be aware that often a Dexter cow will not give enough milk for kitchen and table use and still have enough milk for her calf. You might have to keep a dairy goat to feed the calf. It’s pretty much a case of either milk for your family – or milk for her calf. You probably won’t have milk enough both. Kerries are only a little better in terms of milk production but are frightfully scarce and not budget friendly.

Dairy Cows

A Commercial Dairy

I think a better option for a family cow is a commercial dairy cow that is being culled from a large herd. A cull dairy cow can often be found for a reasonable price. That’s what I most often recommend to people on a budget who want a family cow. Truth is many perfectly good dairy cows are culled because they are considered to be low commercial milk producers. But they work well as family milk cows. Just so you know, sometimes dairy cows are culled from commercial herds because they have one or two bad quarters or are susceptible to chronic mastitis. Both of those conditions can sometimes be made manageable on a small homestead with very careful attention.

Whatever animal you choose for your homestead or family, you can be assured she will give back more than she ever takes with good care and proper management. Not to mention all the cheese, ice cream and yogurt you can stand to eat!


An Easy Trick To Help Pick A Calm Cow

Selecting young cattle for future breeding is as much an art as it is a science. It’s a guessing game in regards to future temperament, productivity, milking ability and mothering. Temperament in cows is an important trait to keep in mind especially with a small herd.
Temperament in many animals is hereditary.

Good sound feet, sturdy legs, a nice straight top line and a feminine appearance are all important considerations when selecting foundation breeding stock. And all things being equal I also select cattle by low head whorls.

A Good Conformation in a Beef Type Heifer

A Good Conformation in a Beef Type Heifer

Some cows are just born crazy. They have a wild streak and there’s not much to be done about it. Crazy cattle are harder to handle and can end up hurting themselves or you. Rowdy cattle will run into walls and try to jump fences and holding pens trying to get away from people. I call it “crashing”. Unmanageable cattle can be dangerous in both a squeeze chute and in an open pasture. Trust me life is too short to put up with crazy cows.

Chasing A Heifer In The Farm Yard

Chasing A Heifer In The Farm Yard

When buying a group of cattle or even just a single animal, I always judge temperament by using three different assessments.
The first is I watch to see how the animal or the group of animals reacts to a stranger (me) in a standing open lot. Next I watch to see whether or not the animal crashes during handling or with a little pressure to move. Lastly I also note the position of the head whorl on the animal .

The first two behavior tests are obvious. But judging cattle temperament by a head whorl is maybe not so obvious.

A facial head whorl is where the hair on a cow or horse’s face meets. Head whorls are simply cowlicks on the face.
Generally the lower the whorl on the face, the less high-strung and calmer the animal will be. The whorl should be at or just above eye level on the face. It is best to avoid very high whorls and especially very uneven whorls high on the face.

Low Head Whorl In A Crossbred Heifer

A Low Head Whorl In A Crossbred Heifer

The example above is a crossbred Kerry heifer with a very low facial head whorl. Notice that the whorl is just below eye level. This heifer was usually calm.
Selection by head whorls is not fool-proof, but when combined with the other two factors, it can help pick good heifers out of a big lot.

Dexter Cattle Flaw – Bad Feet

The calf in the center of the photo below 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?

Dexter With Bad Feet

Dexter Calf With Bad Feet

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.”

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 (2012) 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 and an intelligent breeding program. 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 overpriced, 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.

Cattle Cooling Tank

The 50 gallon water tank in the heifer pasture never stays clean. That’s because Holly insists on standing in it. She’s positively incorrigible.

Black Cattle

Holly Standing In Her Water Tank

No sooner is the water tank sprayed out, cleaned and refilled – then she immediately hops back in.

Black cattle and cattle with a greater muscle mass seem to be more sensitive to heat and humidity. Standing in water helps cattle to cool off.
Many dairy farms and beef operations have earthen or cement cooling ponds to help keep their cattle more comfortable in hot weather.

Kerry Cattle

My husband and I originally bought Kerry cattle for an integrated dairy production project that involved 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 my husband and I would raise the heifers and feed out the steers for beef on our farm.

The plan didn’t work because the Kerries weren’t earning their keep due to low milk production. The Kerries were producing less than 1 ½  gallons of milk a day. Lately I have been trying to figure out what practical place Kerry cows might have in 21st century America.

Kerry cattle are an extremely rare heritage breed of dairy cattle native to Ireland.
They are long-lived and have genetics that are unique and are unlike that of modern U.S. dairy cattle. Kerry cows most often produce milk with A2 type of β-casein which is a very desirable trait in some milking herds.The A1/A2 controversy has become a topic of interest and specialty marketing in the dairy industry and in alternative health circles.

Kerry Cow

A Kerry Cow

When a Kerry bull is crossed onto a Holstein cow or heifer the resulting offspring is solid black. Due to that fact alone the bull calves command higher prices at the sale barn. With our herd we’ve noticed a distinct hardiness and liveliness in any Kerry cross calf.
Kerry bulls are my service choice for easy trouble free calving for a first time heifer. I have found the most successful Kerry crosses so far to have been Kerry X Jersey; Kerry X Holstein and my favorite has been Kerry X Simmental.
Kerry cows like their cousins Dexters,  are low milk producers compared to modern dairy breeds. But they are easy keepers, do quite well on pasture and can make a good family cow for a small family if you can find one.

Kerry Cattle

Kerry Cattle Are Friendly If Handled Properly

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 and easily managed 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. I find it to be a much better flavor than Dexter beef but not quite as good as Hereford of Angus. If slaughter at 24 months the meat is fine grained and slightly marbled.
  • 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.
  • Because of their low milk production Kerry cattle, like Dexters, might have a place as a family cow on the right homestead.
  • Kerry cattle have only a very distant relationship to other breeds of cattle. This maximizes the advantage of heterosis in crossing with more mainstream breeds.

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 12 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.

A Crossbred Kerry Heifer

Horns on Cattle

The first or second thing most farm visitors notice about our older Kerry cows are their horns.
It’s understandable.
Horns were what I initially noticed about Kerry cattle the first time I saw them too. From a farmer’s point of view horns in livestock can be a source of trouble. Horned cattle are more dangerous to handle and are subject to accidents.

Kerry Cow

Olga Is A Kerry Cow

When we bought our first Kerry cows a few years ago they already had large horns. For the most part our cows are good girls and don’t misbehave too badly or get into trouble with their horns. However, we made the decision early on in our Kerry breeding program to de-horn all younger heifers and steers that were born on this farm. It makes life easier for both humans and cattle.

The presence of horns in cattle is the result of genetics. Cattle that lack certain genes are naturally hornless and are known as “polled”.  Some breeds of cattle like the Angus and Galloway are always polled (hornless).
The gene for polling is a dominant gene in cattle.

Hereford Cow

Polled Hereford Cow With Her Calf

Here in western Pennsylvania, old-timers use to refer to a naturally polled cow as a “Muley Cow”. I always wondered why they were called that and then I learned about the naturally polled Moiled Cattle that once roamed Northern Ireland.  Moiled and Muley sound a lot alike and the word may have survived from the first Scots Irish settlers in this area.

Before we bought our first Kerry cows the previous owner had allowed a commercial cross bred Simmental/Angus bull to breed two of them. The resulting offspring were born naturally polled.

Polled Calf

A Naturally Polled Kerry Crossbred Calf

Horns once served cattle as a defense mechanism and will discourage casual predators. Horns can also help cattle that spend a lot of time in semi-wild places. Their horns can be used to knock over young trees and brush for food.

I do find it curious that a dominant genetic factor which would make cattle less able to defend themselves in the wild (and make bulls less able to beat rivals to build a harem) would be dominant.

In situations where cattle are managed inside buildings and yards horns can be bad news. Horns can cause puncture wounds on other cows and to humans; and horns can catch on pipelines, gates and feeders. And a broken horn on an adult animal can be a real bloody mess.

But horns do have useful commercial purposes. Before plastics, horns were used for buttons, cups, powder horns and other useful items. Once removed from a slaughtered cow horn material can even be heated and shaped. Horns are especially useful in working oxen as the horns keep them from backing out of a yoke.

Regardless of the gene expression, horns in cattle remain both a source of expense and controversy.
In the dairy cattle world all mainstream dairy breeds still have horn genetics.
Horns cost the dairyman time and trouble to remove. With cattle de-horning should be done as early as possible in a young bull or heifer’s life to avoid too much unnecessary pain and the possibly of complications. But de-horning also must be done with regard to weather conditions.  Because de-horning done improperly can result in sinus infections and fly strike that can harm the newly de-horned animal.

Cutting Horns

Horns Are Cut Off

Polled dairy genetics are now available but most dairymen have not used them. Some farmers are concerned that breeding for a single characteristic such as polling could result in some other valuable genetic trait being lost.


Fly Control in Pastured Cattle

Because cattle produce so much manure fly populations can be hard to manage and control even when cattle are kept in open pasture and not confined.

Heifer On Pasture

Flora Walking Down The Grassy Lane

Here in western Pennsylvania summertime means fly season for folks who raise cattle. Heavy fly infestations in cattle can be a real animal welfare headache. That’s because flies bite, suck blood; spread disease and cause agitation and a general misery both in cattle and humans alike.

In this part of the US, there are two major types of flies that trouble cattle: face flies and horn flies. If you are new to keeping a family cow or plan on keeping cattle in the future it is a good idea to learn the difference.

Face flies look at lot like big house flies. They tend to cover large areas of the face and like to feed on the eye, nose and mouth secretions that cattle produce.

Fly Control Is Needed

Josie With Summer Face Flies

Face flies transmit the bacteria Moraxella bovis, which is the primary cause of bovine pinkeye. Pinkeye is an extremely contagious inflammation of the cornea and conjunctiva of cattle and can result in blindness if not treated promptly.

Horn flies are about half the size of house flies and have pointier looking wings.
And like the name suggests they prefer to gather in a large mass around the horns or poll of cattle. But horn flies don’t just stop with the head. They are blood suckers and congregate wherever they can’t easily be rubbed or brushed off.

Horn Flies

Horn Flies On Cattle

Horn flies like to stay on cattle continuously and will often face directly downward towards the ground while they cling to cattle. The back and shoulders of calves and full grown cows are all easy targets for horn flies. During rainy weather they will move to the belly and throat of cattle for shelter from the rain.


There are a few different types of products and delivery systems that aid in the control of flies on cattle. The type of fly control that a producer or small holder will choose depends upon budget, herd size, management system and personal preference.


A daily insecticide spray on is a fairy effective control measure if you have only a few cows and if you handle them every day. It’s the type of fly control that we use and it will give about a half to a full day’s protection.


A pour on fly repellant is a good choice for both dairy and beef cattle and can last up to 4 weeks. I keep bugging my husband to get some so we can quit with the daily spray.


Dust bags and oil rubs are very convenient and can be located between two fence posts or a gate where cattle will have to walk every day. Dust bags are filled with powdered insecticide that gets applied like bath powder on bovine heads, backs and necks when they walk underneath it.
Oil rubs are extremely effective and look and act a lot like the big horizontal wiper mops that you see in automatic car washes. Instead of a car passing through and being dosed with soap and water, and cow passes through and gets dosed with insecticide.


Insecticide ear tags are an effective but expensive form of fly control. Best results are obtained if tags are set in both ears and not too soon in fly season. Both caution and rubber gloves must be used when applying insecticide ear tags and flies can develop a resistance after a couple of years of use.


The way a feed or mineral additive works is that insecticide in the feed or mineral block is eaten by the cattle and then passed through the digestive tract and into the manure.
The insecticide reduces the number of flies emerging from the manure and helps to keep fly populations under control.

Bottle Jaw – What You Need To Know

Bottle jaw is the vernacular term given to pendulous lower jaw swelling in sheep, cattle and goats.
The swelling is a soft tissue edema cause by anemia. It is characteristic in animals that are carrying a heavy load of blood sucking internal parasites – better known as worms.

Bottle Jaw

A Bottle Jaw In A Young Ram

Most often in sheep and gaots, the worms are haemonchus contortus often called “barber pole worms” because of the red and white twisted appearance in large female worms. But other worms, namely ostertagia circumcinta  and trichostrongylus colubriformis can also cause a bottle jaw.
What you need to know about bottle jaw is that if you see it in your animals you have a serious problem and must act quickly.
That’s especially true in sheep because most often the first sign of a heavy intestinal parasite load is a sudden death.

Sudden Death Due to Worms

A Sudden Death In A Nursing Ewe Due To Barber Pole Worms

In sheep, cattle and goats the symptoms of worms can also include diarrhea, weakness, weight loss or thriftiness. All or none of those symptoms will sometimes also accompany a bottle jaw. The best test for worms
in sheep and goats is the correct use of a FAMACHA card system. 

FAMACHA score cards are usually available from your veterinarian for about $25.

The treatment for most common worms is simple.
First check around to see what wormers work in your local area. Internal parasites can and do develop drug resistance.
Here’s what I do:

  1. First administer a wormer.
  2. Confine the animals for 24 hours after worming so they can pass out the dead worms. Make sure they have plenty of fresh water.
  3. Release the animals onto clean ground or pasture that has had no livestock for at least 2 months.
  4. Repeat again in 10 days.

At present in my area Cydectin or Ivermectin are effective by injection, drench or pour on. I believe both wormers are off label for goats but are still used. Eprinex , Dectomax, Prohibit, Rumatel, Nematel, Strongid, Tramisol and Valbazen are all good wormers but may have drug resistance where you live. There is drug resistance in my area to  Panacur and  SafeGuard.
Not all wormers are the same so be sure to read the label and pay attention to the milk and meat withdrawal times.

Freemartin Heifer Calf

Aren’t they cute? They’re Brown Swiss calves and they are 4 month old twins. The cream-colored one is a bull calf (male) and the fawn colored one is a heifer calf (female). The heifer calf is known as a “freemartin”.

Karl & Ellsie Mid-May

Karl & Ellsie in Mid-May

A freemartin is an infertile female mammal.
In cattle a freemartin is the normal outcome of mixed sexed twins. And 90% -95% of heifers born from mixed sexed twins will be sterile. Sometimes a single heifer calf will be made sterile from the death of a male twin during the early part of the gestation period.

The female is made infertile in utero due to an interconnection and fusion of chorions and shared blood vessels which permits the blood from each twin to flow around the other twin.
The action of male hormones upon the female fetus usually renders the heifer calf with non-functioning ovaries and often a very short vagina. The heifer often displays a masculine appearance and behavior.
The action of the female hormones on the male fetus usually has no effect on the bull calf except sometimes the testicles may be smaller than normal. This is important because testicle size is associated with cattle fertility.
The freemartin effect has been recorded in goats, sheep and pigs but it is very rare. The 18th century Scottish physician John Hunter was the first to observe that a freemartin heifer always has a male twin.
Freemartinism is usually diagnosed by vaginal examination with a probe at  3 – 6 months of age. Vaginal length in a normal heifer calf is usually greater than 5 1/2  inches. In a freemartin heifer the vaginal length is usually between 2 1/2 to 4 inches long.
Sometimes genetic testing will be used with a valuable heifer to determine breeding ability. But most often a visual examination of the placental membranes shortly after birth will confirm the probability of sterility of the female calf.

Taming Hattie

I have been spending a few moments every afternoon taming our new heifer.
Both my husband and I strongly believe that farm animals should be trained to come to the bucket and tolerate handling by humans.

Young Heifer


Even beef cattle can be tamed up some, and it’s an especially good idea to tame up a future brood cow.
Sometimes a newly freshen cow will become over protective of her new calf and will charge humans.
A new mother can be dangerous if she takes a notion to.

I think it is worth the time and trouble to tame all farm animals, large and small. It’s especially valuable should the animal ever become sick, need to be moved or gets out of the fence.
For most of our animals all I have to do is shake a bucket full of feed – and they come a running.
It makes life so much easier.
Our new heifer has been kept in a pen alone for the last 2 weeks so she can become accustomed to us, our farm routine, and so we can make sure that she has no disease that could spread to our other animals. It is also important that she be isolated so she becomes lonely.
A lonely animal makes the taming easier. In just the last few days the new heifer has decided that she is lonesome. She took to nosing the dog and then licking him. Animals often make up to other animals first.
Now she is willing to stand to be petted on the nose and eat hay from my hand. I finally named her “Hattie” this afternoon.