Standing 40 inches tall and weighing 700 to 900 pounds, Dexter cattle are some of the smallest cattle in the world. Although size is the breed’s most distinguishing characteristic, Dexters are a useful and productive, multi‑purpose animal.
The Dexter originated in southern Ireland during the early 1800s and was developed from the Kerry, an Irish dairy breed, through selection for smaller size and improved beef qualities. The breed name came from “Mr. Dexter,” who promoted the cattle during the mid‑1800s. They became popular with smallholders in Ireland and England, who appreciated its efficiency in producing both milk and beef on limited acreage. Dexters were later imported to North America beginning in 1910.
Even after the Dexter was established as a breed, its history remained intertwined with Kerry cattle. For years the two breeds were registered in a single herdbook, and some people considered Dexters to be a miniature type of Kerry. Recent blood typing research has determined that the two cattle, though closely related, are genetically distinct breeds and shouldn’t be crossbred with each other.
Dexter cattle are solid and compact in appearance. Most are black, though red and dun also exist. The cattle are horned, and their black‑tipped white horns arc upward. Two body conformations are found within the breed: cattle with average bodies and very short legs, and ones that are proportionately small in every dimension. Because the short‑legged type occasionally produces nonviable offspring, it has fallen out of favor, while the proportionate type has become more popular.
Dexters have always attracted attention because of its size and has sometimes been marketed as a novelty or ornamental breed. This practice has obscured the breed’s production value. Dexters are hardy, forage‑efficient cattle with excellent maternal qualities. As with other dual‑purpose breeds, the quantity of milk produced varies between strains. Those that have had more dairy selection produce more milk, while strains selected for beef produce less. The milk produced is high in solids, making it ideal for butter and cheese production. Dexter beef is lean and high quality. The small size of the carcass makes the breed an excellent choice for direct marketing programs. Dexters are good browsers and can rid pastures of pest plants, and can also be used as oxen.
Dexter cattle are increasing in numbers in North America and globally, and the breed seems destined to succeed. However, the challenge facing breeders is to maintain historic selection practices so that their production qualities are conserved and promoted.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.