Cattle Breeds of Britain and Ireland

The Dexter

The Dexter cattle breed is one of Great Britain's indigenous breeds. Although they are so small, they are not miniaturised from a larger breed. They take their name from a Mr Dexter who agent to a Lord Howarden who live in County Tipperary in south west Ireland in 1750. Dexter selected hardy native stock to create a dairy and beef animal that was suited to grazing on a small acreage. This was to be a 'cottagers' or 'poor man's cow'. By 1882 they were making an appearance in England and ten years later the Kerry and Dexter/Kerry Cattle Society was established.

Dexters have gone international now and can be found throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as in their native Ireland and England. Although once rare, they are gaining popularity for those with small acreages and, perhaps, limited knowledge of cattle. Dexters have all the advantages of larger animals and few of the disadvantages.

The cows measure 36 to 42 inches at the point of the hip and weigh about 750 to 800 pounds. Bulls are 38 to 46 inches and weigh 1000 to 1100 pounds. There are two types – the long-legged and the short-legged. Sometimes the long-legged are called non-short legged. The gene for the short-legged type is inherited and a test will determine if the gene is present. Short-legged types must be mated to a long-legged partner. Both types have equal value in the show ring.

Dexter BullCredit:

Although traditionally a horned breed, there are now polled cattle being produced from polled foundation stock. The horns are moderately thick at the base and white tapering to a black tip. Even if horned, the animals may be dehorned as calves to prevent damage to other stock, getting caught in fences, etc. They have a friendly, curious temperament and, with their small size, are ideal for the inexperienced handler or older breeder. They are also a good choice for women or families with small children who with to get involved with an appropriate breed of cattle.

The colour choice is black, red and dun with black being the most common. The colour is solid although small amounts of white on the belly, on the sheath and scrotum of males and on the udder and vulval area of females is permissible. The tip of the tail may also be white.

Dexter CowCredit:,_Three_Counties_Show.jpg

The cows have strong maternal instincts and will often try to hide their calves for a day or two when first giving birth. They are normally happy to foster an extra calf or two as well.

Milk yield is two to three gallons a day of rich milk. The fat globules are small making the milk easily digested. Some cows will produce twenty times their body weight in milk in a year.

The meat is of top quality and a good size for a family freezer. The meat is lean and well-marbled, tender and with excellent flavour. The joints are small, (again family sized) and there is little waste. An average carcass weight of 145 to 220 kgs can be obtained from grass-fed steers slaughtered at two years old or slightly less.

Dexter bulls are gaining favour as a good choice to put over maiden heifers. The small size of the calf virtually guarantees an easy birth for the heifer's first calf. A cross of this type generally reaches ¾ the size of the mother.

The hindquarters are heavily muscled behind a broad, deep torso. There is good width between the eyes which are bright and prominent. The head tapers to a broad muzzle and wide nostrils. The neck is thick but not too short and the head is carried higher than the body. The ribs are well sprung and the rump is full and round. The back and underline are straight and level. From shoulder to tail should at least equal but preferably be greater than the height at the shoulder. The skin is loose and pliable. The coat is quite long and thick in winter but much shorter and sleek in summer. The udder has a high and wide rear attachment and the medial suspensory ligament should be well defined. The scrotum of bulls should be large and hang well away from the body.

Being smaller, Dexters need less of everything. Less acreage, less food and they impact less on their habitat. The calves are rapid growers and are fertile well before they should be allowed to breed so keep heifers well away from bulls until you want them mated. Their conversion of feed to beef is equally as efficient if not more so than that of larger breeds. They adapt to varying climates and management conditions. Although the Dexter is an ideal choice for a hobby farmer, commercial breeders are beginning to recognise the benefits of raising these small treasures.