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.
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.
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.
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.