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Contact: Brittany Sweeney
Editor’s Notes: Interviews and photos available upon request.
The Livestock Conservancy has begun analyzing the genetic health of Dexter cattle in both the United States and the United Kingdom. This research project will trace Dexter foundation threads through both DNA and herdbook analyses so current herds can be optimally managed to maximize the preservation of unique genetics. Still facing population challenges in both countries, some genetic lines are in danger of being lost forever.
“The Livestock Conservancy is excited to begin this work at a time when farmers are making tough livestock decisions,” said Executive Director Alison Martin, herself a Ph.D. geneticist. “The Dexter’s small size, feed efficiency and mild temperament make them a great choice for today, when farmers need to control their costs.”
Many small farmers depend on Dexter cattle, an important dual-purpose heritage breed, for both beef and dairy production. Standing only 40 inches tall, Dexters are ideal for farms with fewer acres for livestock. They also produce lean, high-quality meat and milk with high solids, which is great for making butter and cheese. This breed is hardy, forage-efficient and can rid pastures of pest plants.
“We bought our first Dexters about 20 years ago,” said Charles Barnes, a Livestock Conservancy Member and farmer in Virginia. “We’ve found Dexters to be excellent grass-fed beef and easy keepers. They are fertile and easy to work with. We also keep a few for milking and they furnish fluid milk, cheese and yogurt for our farm year-round. As a testament to their multipurpose, my son is also going to start training a yoke of oxen.”
Dexter cattle owners and breeders like Barnes are highly engaged and organized, which has contributed to the recent advances the breed has made in their overall numbers. This research into unique genetics will help target specific portions of the breed that would benefit from a conservation breeding plan. “As our numbers have increased, we’ve been selling seed stock and it has been very satisfying to help establish and add to small farmstead herds, for which they are well suited,” Barnes said. “I’d like to think that by choosing to raise Dexters that I’ve contributed to moving this rare breed a little further to recovering.”
Dexter cattle have been a staple on small American farms for more than one hundred years, resulting in good genetic diversity. “Over that century, the breed has seen various imports, along with diverse selection goals among breeders,” said Phil Sponenberg, D.V.M., Ph.D., Technical Advisor for The Livestock Conservancy. “This has led to a breed with interesting and important threads that run through it.”
Although the breed originated in Ireland, purebred cattle there were either lost or crossed and then re-imported from England to Ireland. As a result, the United States and the United Kingdom hold most, if not all, of the genetic variation found in Dexter cattle today. “An early peek into the genetic influences of present-day Dexter cattle holds tantalizing hope that some of those earliest threads are still available to breeders on both sides of the Atlantic,” Sponenberg said. “Bringing all of this information together and scientifically documenting it will allow breeders to make informed decisions, whatever their individual goals.”
The Livestock Conservancy received a donation from Lowell and Carolyn Larson of Burlington, Wis., to begin this important research into the genetic diversity of Dexter cattle. Members of The Livestock Conservancy since the 1980s, the Larsons have supported science-based efforts to save both American Cream and Caspian horses in addition to Dexter cattle.
“We like specific projects,” Carolyn Larson said. “Helping Dexter cattle is something The Livestock Conservancy wanted and needed to do, but couldn’t without more funding.”
The Larsons’ continued commitment to sustain rare breed conservation will make a tremendous difference for Dexter cattle, currently ranked as recovering on The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List (CPL). Recovering status means the breed was once listed in the Watch category, but now has more than 2,500 annual registrations in the United States, along with an estimated global population of more than 10,000 animals. Twenty-one breeds of cattle are currently listed on the CPL as critical, threatened, watch, recovering or study.
The Livestock Conservancy’s small staff works with a vast network of volunteer farmers, ranchers and shepherds throughout the United States, who raise more than 150 endangered breeds across 11 species of traditional livestock and poultry. Serving as animal stewards, the volunteer network does the hard work of securing and sustaining breeding populations, so their irreplaceable genetic value is available for future food and fiber needs. In more than four decades, The Livestock Conservancy has never lost a breed to extinction.
The Larsons’ generous support, coupled with the efforts of those who raise Dexter cattle, will help move one more breed toward stability with the hopes of eventually graduating off the CPL. “It’s a pleasure for us to see The Livestock Conservancy grow and be a part of that mission,” Carolyn Larson said.
About the Livestock Conservancy:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to protect over 150 heritage breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Included in its mission are donkeys, cattle, goats, horses, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. Founded in 1977, the Conservancy is the pioneer organization in the U.S. working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. The Livestock Conservancy’s mission is “to protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.”
Why are domestic breeds of livestock and poultry in danger of extinction?
Modern agriculture and food production favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output under intensively controlled environments. Many traditional breeds do not excel under these conditions, causing their popularity to decrease and leaving them faced with extinction. Although these breeds do not fit today’s mainstream model of agriculture, they are exquisitely suited for backyards and small to medium-sized farms.
Why is genetic diversity important?
Like all ecological systems, agriculture depends on genetic diversity to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Genetic diversity in domestic animals is revealed in distinct breeds, each with different characteristics and uses.
Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to disease and parasites. As agriculture changes, this genetic diversity may be needed for a broad range of uses and opportunities. Once lost, genetic diversity is gone forever.
What Are Heritage Breeds?
Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers. These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment. And they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions very different from those found in modern agriculture today.
Heritage animals once roamed America’s pastoral landscape, but today these breeds are in danger of extinction. Modern agriculture has changed, causing many of these breeds to fall out of favor. Heritage breeds store a wealth of genetic resources that are important for our future and the future of our agricultural food and fiber systems.