Unusually small and relatively rare, Dexter cattle are something special. These tiny cows are smaller than any of the other European cattle breeds, but they have a friendly temperament and produce rich, delicious milk. Dexter cattle can also be used for beef production, although many of the people raising them do so on a very small scale.
Origins of Dexter Cattle
Dexter cattle originally come from the southwestern region of Ireland, but they migrated to England well over a century ago. After this introduction in 1882, the breed gained a secure foothold in England, where they were maintained in a number of small herds. However, Dexter cattle almost disappeared in their native Ireland.
Popularity of Dexter Cattle
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers the Dexter a recovering breed of cattle. They became extremely rare in the United Kingdom and United States, and remained so for many years, but now the numbers are increasing once again. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of Dexter cattle registered in the UK approximately doubled.
Keeping Dexter Cattle
Many of the people who keep Dexter cattle are small-scale producers of milk or meat. Some of these small-scale organic farmers keep Dexter herds primarily for their own consumption, as they are an easy breed to look after and produce high-quality milk.
Dexters are a great choice for anyone who wants to establish a small milking herd without becoming a large-scale producer. They calve easily and are good mothers, even nursing calves that are not their own with their abundant milk. Dexter cattle are friendly and good-natured.
Characteristics of Dexter Cattle
A fully grown Dexter cow weighs between 600 and 700 pounds. This is only about half the size of a Hereford cow, or about one third the size of a Holstein milking cow. Bulls can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Dexter cattle traditionally have small, thick horns that grow outward with a small curve. However, there is also a polled strain, which was developed in the 1990s. Dexters can be black, dark red, or dun. They typically only have one color in their coat.
The milk from Dexter cattle is rich and high in butterfat. It is somewhat similar to Jersey milk, but many people say that it is more homogenized. Dexters have plentiful milk production for their small size, with each cow producing between 2 and 2.5 gallons per day.
Dexter cattle produce dark meat, which is well marbled. Dexter beef is often considered a premium product, partly due to the rarity of the breed, but also because of its quality. Due to the small size of the Dexter, the joints of beef are generally small compared to beef from other types of cattle.
Health Problems of Dexter Cattle
Some Dexter cattle are even shorter than average, as they have a genetic form of dwarfism that causes their legs to grow less than average. These dwarf cattle often survive well, even though they are between six and eight inches shorter than average, but the offspring of two dwarf individuals often does not carry to term. Dexter cattle can also carry a gene for a disease known as PHA, which affects the development of the lungs of the fetus. DNA testing can determine whether a cow or bull carries this gene.
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