There’s a quiet revolution happening in American food production. Farmers, from across many different regions and backgrounds, are growing their own food. In backyard homesteads, at small-
acreage farms and even on larger sized properties, Independent minded people are reimagining the process of food production.
Some only produce food for their families and friends. Others enter a wider market by selling their products to restaurants, specialty shops and professional chefs. Every farmer is different. Each has a unique spin on the farm-to-table food trend.
However, there is something they all have in common. They have experienced the rich flavor and nutritional value of homegrown food. And they want to share it.
If you visit a local farmers market, you’ll see avariety of fruits, vegetables, berries, herbs and nuts these inspired farmers cultivate. You will also see spin-off products: breads, soaps, lotions, bath salts, handcrafts and canned goods.
If you’re lucky, intermingled with the garden and crafted items, you’ll find local beef and dairy products. This is where a very special breed of cattle stands to become a mainstay in this farm-to-table food revolution: Dexter cattle.
A Heritage Breed
Dexter cattle originated in the Kerry region of southwestern Ireland where they were owned by small landholders. These early Dexters roamed the mountainous Irish landscape in sparse living conditions, developing the hardy, thrifty characteristics that we value in the breed today.
The first recorded importation of Dexters to America lists more than 200 arriving between 1905 and 1915. Now, the growing popularity of this special breed has expanded their population into nearly every state. If you’re thinking about raising and preserving one of the best heritage breeds of America’s farming past, stewarding a herd of heritage Dexter cattle should be on your list!
Read more: These small livestock breeds are perfect for small farms!
Dexter cattle are a bargain in the agricultural community. As one of the last tri-purpose cattle breeds in existence, Dexters are excellent beef and milk producers. Some ranchers also keep the tradition of Dexter draft animals alive by training them to become valued oxen.
Their versatility is demonstrated in their ability to thrive in many different climates, by grazing on a wide variety of forages. When space and resources are at a premium, having one cattle breed that provides an assortment of food products and that is easy on your land and pocketbook is convenient and wise.
Dexter cattle can help you with that.
One of the most important factors in the success of an agricultural plan is sustainability. It’s important to minimize the challenges and optimize the achievements to keep an endeavor healthy and strong.
Dexter cattle excel in helping ranchers achieve that.
As breeding animals, Dexters have a high fertility rate with a low rate of calving difficulties. Dexter bulls are known for their even temperament and ease of handling. Dexter cows are typically excellent mothers, displaying the type of nurturing instincts that make them highly prized in genetically superior operations.
The Dexter’s smaller size reduces the environmental footprint on valued pastures and waterways. Additionally, its ability to convert a wide variety of native grasses and legumes into rich, healthy beef and milk allows it to fit well in traditional and nontraditional farming techniques.
Very few cattle can offer more sustainability advantages.
Read more: Pick your ruminant based on what your pastures can offer.
Dexter cattle are famous for their thriftiness. They eat less but produce more, pound for pound, than larger breeds. For example, Dexter cows eat less than half of what their commercial dairy counterparts consume, but still produce 1 to 3 gallons milk a day.
Cows can provide their farmer with this rich creamy milk, all while still raising their own healthy calf, in a calf-sharing relationship.
Dexter steers produce well-marbled beef using a variety of healthy feeding plans. They thrive in grass-fed programs but also metabolize grains well for those that like to offer their steers healthy processed feed.
Steers typically mature to processing age by 18 to 24 months, producing beef that is rich and complex in flavor. With high-quality meat and smaller cuts, Dexter beef is perfect for health-conscious families. This also fits well into a healthy-eating marketing plan.
Dexters aren’t miniature cattle. This small heritage breed has naturally maintained their small size without employing miniaturization strategies used by some large breeds.
Dexter calves typically weigh 40 to 50 pounds at birth. A mature cows weigh from 600 to 800 pounds.
Their height ranges from 34 to 46 inches (a majority in the range of 36 to 42 inches), measured at the hip. By the time a cow has had her first calf at or after 24 months, she has mostly reached her mature size.
Bulls weigh from 800 to 1,200 pounds. Their height ranges from 36 to 50 inches (a majority in the range of 38 to 44 inches), measured at the hip. Bulls don’t reach their mature size until about 5 years of age.
Dexters can be black, red or dun. Solid colors, with occasional white on udders and/or behind the umbilicus, are the norm. Excessive white, pervasive spotting or brindling aren’t considered typical Dexter colorations.
Dexters are originally a horned breed, with beautiful, sweeping, midsized horns that are white with black tips. Some horned Dexters have their horns intact. Others have been dehorned. Dexters can also be naturally polled (or hornless), oftentimes passing on this hornless characteristic to their offspring.
Horned, dehorned and polled Dexters have all three found niche in the agricultural community. So whether you are looking for horned or polled genetics in your Dexter herd, you can choose from many options across America. Breeders have chosen to focus their efforts on raising this well-rounded breed of cattle.
If you’re watching trends in agriculture and seeing the upsurge in the farm-to-table food revolution, keep an eye on Dexter cattle. They’re positioned to become a new food producer’s best asset.
For more information about Dexters, check out the American Dexter Cattle Association.
The American Dexter Cattle Association is a vibrant community of fellow Dexter owners with an annual expo, a quarterly magazine and access to regional directors with years of experience. If you think that Dexter cattle might benefit your farming venture, start your research at the ADCA website. You can contact ADCA representatives by finding their email addresses on the ADCA “Contact Us” webpage.
Regional directors are a great resource to learn more about Dexter cattle. And the “Member’s Map” will give you a snapshot of where to find breeders in your region.
A good way to assure the true pedigree of a Dexter is to own ADCA-registered Dexters. Since 1957, the ADCA has offered breeders a quality registry for Dexter pedigrees to be recorded and maintained.
With animals reaching back to the earliest recorded purebred Dexters, the ADCA online pedigree serves as an important research tool for breeders to study purebred Dexter cattle bloodlines. The ADCA also requires testing to genetically verify the parentage of calves.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.