History of Dexter Cattle

The Romance (and Mystery) of the Dexter

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Author Ray Bolwell

You have to wonder why a little black cow has survived so long and won a place in many hearts and minds.

Dexters are original - one of the ancient breeds. Once listed as rare, their resurgence in many areas of the globe is more than coincidence. The hardy and manageable Dexters

are a breed quickly establishing itself everywhere.

There's some romance in the Dexter legend. There's almost certain connection with Irish Kerry Cattle and the myth that Kerrie's, who grazed on the coast's seaweed, mated with sea lions to produce the original Dexters. Reassuringly, there if no mention of Leprachauns.

Another claim has the Dexters travelling on sailing ships as a source of fresh milk and meat and intermingling with Japanese cattle to evolve the Wagyu strain. Japanese gardeners, brought to Britain for their exquisite skills, are reputed to have taken Dexters back to Japan in the late 1800's. There's tales of Dexters on the coastline of Africa in the 18th Century too.

Some hold that Dexters come from the Kylos, a generic cattle of the Celts which spawned Galloways and Welsh Blacks, as well as Kerries and Dexters.

It's a rich broth of social history and cattle folklore.

Even the origin of the Dexter name is not well established, although it is claimed a Captain Dexter, and agent of the Lord Howarden of Tipperary gave the breed its name and more recognition in Ireland.

Early writers on livestock history in the United Kingdom tell of the Kerry/Dexter and regular Irish exports in the 18th century. These little cattle were kept largely in England by the gentry as "Park" cattle on the show estates of that era. But in Ireland the Dexter animal was not for the gentry but the small landholder to milk and eat, or sell to the wealthy in increasing numbers.

An interesting contrast that; Little Black Cows for the rich in England's green and pleasant land, subsistence cattle in the land of the troubles. Eighteen century writers have described Dexters as having long bodies with good depth; short, medium and long legged, glossy coats and thus pleasing to the eye for the affluent landowners.

The English Aristocracy has had a long involvement with Dexters, The Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, the Duchess of Devonshire, Edward Prince of Wales, The Earls Sefton, the Dowager Duchess Lady Loder are among some of the lovers and breeders of the little black cows.

More recently, some of the rich and famous have established herds of Dexters for their pleasure and profit. The Kellog Family (yes cornflakes) have, for more than 50 years, bred Dexters in Long Island, New York and the prominent Australian Publishers, The Syme Family, bred Dexters on the Mornington Peninsula before World War II.

Some historians have it that Dexters evolved as an improved Devon/Kerry Cross, but there's an equally strong case that the Dexter is a direct descendant of the original Celtic Cattle and dates back to the bronze age. I favour the latter but I'm not sure just why.

After some uncertainty in their provenance there is however, some certainty in the facts.

Dexters are unusual and truly dual purpose. An adult Dexter Cow will weigh about 300kgs and delight you with at least seven litres of milk most days. Dexter meat provides smaller cuts of delicious beef and these hardy little animals will thrive in conditions that defeat their beefier relatives. Other small or minature breeds are not able to make these claims with any conviction.

Canny farmers have used Dexters in their husbandry for years. Some studs of bigger breeds use Dexter bulls with their maiden heifers for first calf ease. Others use Dexter matrons for their devoted ability to raise two or three calves in thier early months. Some UK farmers have a Dexter as their stock bull for heavy hybrid vigor crosses for the vealer trade.

There are less than one thousand pure bred Dexters in Australia now and you can pay upwards of $10,000 for a good heifer and $4,000 up for a good young bull. The prices asked and paid are moderate for stud cattle as a cursory study of the stud market reports will show, or you can buy some foundation animals and begin in a breeding up program.

For someone with just a few acres the Dexters are appealing. At the very least they will mow the grass for you so you'll never have to buy a mower, fuel or spark plugs. But along with that their droll and loving nature makes them a pet-size or almost a family member--if that's your wish. Their small size makes them easy to handle and their tractability means you don't need the big fences and the easy duty handling young culls as steers to neighbours. There are two of my steers on neighbour's four and bit acres and they keep it immaculately groomed. They turn up at the kitchen door each morning and night in search of a piece of bread , carrot, or any other, by their standards, edible scraps. His children enjoy supplying the minimal attention needed while learning about cattle and their ways daily.

Perhaps more than any other breed the Dexters appeal to animal lovers and seem mainly to attract enthusiastic, pleasant people who socialise and exchange information as part of their way of life. Perhaps it's the curiosity and genuine interest in people the little Dexters show that influences their owners. An unquantifiable value.

Your Dexter will come in one of three colors permitted in the breed standard. Black, Red or Dun, any white is a fault and too much white a major problem. The genetic pool is a cause for mild concern and the better breeders are careful not to overuse the same bloodlines, and to keep both the milk and meat genes in their herd. The responsible breeder will aim to offer only Dexter animals true to type, temperament and balance.

Perhaps you have never handled or owned cattle before. We were all beginners once! Probably then the Dexter Breed is the one you can learn with--and maybe never want to leave.

Nature has much to teach us and we have so very much to learn. The great joy of farming is to learn the cycles, endure the bad, rejoice in the good and strive to be endlessly patient. And to know some moments of complete tranquility as your Dexters gather round you at twilight company.

The delight of your first calf on the ground and watching your herd of three or 30 animals interact and grow are moments only small farmers can know--and treasure.

There's much information to be had from other Dexter aficionados, Pat Coleby has books rich in commonsense on husbandry and health-healthy animals and land. I find her work and invaluable resource. As well there are standard works on cattle available and magazines like Alternative Farmer to help you. It's engrossing and either a business or a hobby as you choose.

For the serious commercial farmer the opportunity exists to be part of one of the fastest growing and financially sound cattle associations. Whether you elect to start with a few foundation animals and breed up, or start your herds with pure bloods, the future would seem assured. A large or small scale farming enterprise seems possible and vialbe on a Dexters base.

Forward thinkers see an exponential, market driven, expansion in the domestic market for stud and commercial animals. When commercial herds are established the potential for live export to Asia is potent. The Dexter's ability to flourish in every climatic condition from snow to the tropics and their very considerable foraging ability makes them ideal for Asian peasant farmers and small landholders so close to this country.

In age of specialisation, Dexters have an obvious place. The sometime dictum that "bigger is better" whether it's in size of cattle or the size of the property is now largely discredited. Current thinking revolves around smaller, ecologically sound, yet intensively farmed, properties and not around sheer size.

I believe as the Dexters' numbers increase small Dexter Dairy Farms will evolve and each State will have Dexter Co-operative to offer gourmet cheeses, butter and thick cream and that Dexter Meat will reach the gourmet market both here and abroad.

Grown out Dexter Beef is attractively marbled, tender and easily handled for smaller portion control. Premium meat, intelligently marketed, will always command a premium price. The Dexter co-ops may also offer Dexter hides, which were once well regarded by the hide merchants.

Probably the breeders will establish a marketing strategy with the co-ops to brand, promote and sell dexter produce and the market will seek and pay for the produce of those flexible little cattle.

Page last updated: 16 May 2008