Dexter cattle: Short and sweet | Living the Country Life

Dexter cattle: Short and sweet

Prized for their gentle dispositions and high-quality beef and milk, Dexter cattle make a compact, efficient addition to the acreage.
Sisters Eleanor and Abigail Lewis tend Dexter heifers, Jet and Ruby, at their 40-acre home in Plummer, Idaho.

Dexter cattle may be small, but when it comes to milk, meat quality, and disposition, the compact breed measures up to average-size cattle.

Weighing in at just 700 to 750 pounds, Dexters originated in Ireland. Roger Shaw, a manager for the Purebred Dexter Cattle Association (, has been raising the breed for eight years. Although he uses his Dexters primarily for beef, the animals can also be raised as pets or for milk production.

Shaw bought his first Dexter bull to cross with larger-breed cows to ease calving. The calves were smaller but were more likely born healthy and with less strain on the cow. Purebred Dexter heifers mature early and can be bred at a year old, says Shaw.

Meat and milk

It wasn't long before Shaw decided to try the meat from one of his Dexters. When he tasted the beef, he knew he'd found a high-quality product.

"We butchered one, and the meat was excellent," he says. "It has a little finer grain than regular beef, and it's a little more tender."

Dexter meat is also known to be leaner than many other types of beef. That's why more people are catching on to the benefits of Dexter beef, and the demand often exceeds Shaw's supplies. "I've usually got a waiting list for people wanting meat," he says.

Meat isn't the only product Dexters can provide. The milk the breed produces is comparable to milk produced by Jersey cows, Shaw says. It is high in butterfat, and a cow can give 2 to 3 quarts per milking.

The breed comes in three colors: red, black, and dun. Usually, the color choice comes down to breeders' personal preferences. Red Dexters are the most rare and, thus, command the highest prices. Because some Dexters can appear red even though their sire and dam are not, Dexter breeders must have their cattle DNA tested to determine whether the animals are truly red.

'Here, girls!'

With their friendly, gentle dispositions, Dexters are also catching on with owners who just enjoy having the breed around. Shaw says his Dexters sometimes behave more like pets than livestock. When it's feeding time, he simply shakes the bucket and calls "Here, girls!" and they come running from wherever they are.

Many Dexter owners only need an electric fence to keep their herds contained. Also, less land is required due to the breed's small size. At 3 years old, Dexter bulls are usually between just 38 and 44 inches tall at the shoulder.

"They can be raised on small acreages," Shaw says. "They're very popular with people who have 3 to 5 acres."

No matter what their reasons are for raising Dexters, many first-time owners can't resist the breed once they've given it a try, Shaw says.

"If you ever get Dexters, you'll usually keep them around," he says. "They can be just like puppy dogs."

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