By Ron Metz
Vice President, PDCA
The first breed improvement program designed specifically for Dexter cattle.
This is the first of a series of articles that will discuss the vision, goals and mechanics of DexStar, the first breed improvement program designed specifically for Dexter cattle. It was the first century Jewish scholar Hillel who famously asked “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” Through the ages that quote has been used many times, sometimes paraphrased, and often applied to various situations. Today, I am borrowing Hillel’s words and applying them to the Dexter breed.
Irish Dexter cattle have been in the United States for over 100 years. Yet, as of this writing, no organized credible attempt has been made to improve the phenotype or valuable economic traits this unique breed has to offer. That is, until the launch of the DexStar Breed Improvement Initiative by the Purebred Dexter Cattle Association (PDCA).
Utilizing Data to Improve
Today, every major breed of livestock utilizes some sort of data collection system to improve their breed while maintaining specific characteristics set forth in a breed standard. Now with DexStar, the Dexter breed will be able to utilize data to improve not only the quality of individual animals but also the quality of Dexter beef and milk.
Make no mistake, this project is a very large undertaking that will require a considerable amount of time and work. The success of DexStar will depend on the cooperation and dedication of Dexter breeders working in conjunction with PDCA and testing facilities to produce credible phenotypic and genetic data. That data will in turn be used to generate EPD’s (expected progeny differences) and genomic information for individual animals. That individual information can then be used to make better selection, breeding and buying decisions. The end result will be the overall improvement of the breed.
Dexter Breed Specific
DexStar data will have the added benefit of increasing the monetary value of top performing bloodlines as well as individual animals and their progeny. The beauty of DexStar is, it will provide data based on information collected solely from Dexter cattle rather than using an amalgamation of information collected from other beef breeds and then applied to Dexters. DexStar is Dexter breed specific.
Where do we begin? The longest journey begins with taking the first step. Because there is no existing phenotype or genomic data available for the Dexter breed (I’m referring to data other than chondro, PHA, coat color, A2A2, horned/polled), the first step in the development of DexStar is the establishment of a data base containing information collected from individual Dexters within peer groups. The building of this database wholly depends on breeders making a commitment to voluntarily enter their herds in the DexStar program. I encourage all Dexter breeders, regardless of herd size, to consider the overwhelming benefits of DexStar and enter the program.
There are two types of data DexStar will be collecting, phenotypic and genomic. It will take time to develop protocols for specific genomic tests for Dexter beef and milk. Therefore the first and easiest type of data to begin collecting is phenotypic evaluations on individual animals within peer groups. A peer group is considered to be two or more animals of the same sex within a certain age bracket. Phenotypic traits are those observable characteristics determined by genetic makeup and environmental influences. In cattle, phenotype can include both qualitative and quantitative characteristics.
Qualitative phenotypes are determined by one or a few genes and environment plays a minor role. Examples of qualitative characteristics would include blood type, dwarfism, coat color and horned/polled. Quantitative phenotypes are influenced by many pairs of genes and are more strongly influenced by the environment. Some examples would be milk production and quality, beef production and quality, disease resistance and feed conversion. Evaluating and scoring phenotypes is something breeders can do. A plan for the specific phenotype characteristics initially chosen for evaluation is being developed, along with an illustrated tutorial for breeders to use in scoring their animals. PDCA will be available to assist breeders with questions about phenotype evaluations.
Why DexStar and all this effort?
To What End? Why DexStar and all this effort? Where do Dexter cattle fit in today’s market? These are some of the questions that crossed my mind while developing the concept and goals of DexStar. Honestly, Dexter cattle will never fit in to the existing commodity beef production model or the industrial dairy production model. They are too small, produce carcasses that are too lean, and mature much later than typical animals bred for commercial beef production. Even though they produce excellent milk, they don’t produce enough of it. Do we want to change the breed to accommodate the requirements of industrial beef and dairy production? The answer to that question is a resounding no! What we need to do is capitalize on all the positive traits this breed has to offer while creating our own niche within the consumer beef and artisan dairy markets. Consider the attributes this breed has to offer compared to cattle bred for industrial commodity production. Smaller mature size, nonexistent problems with calving, excellent mothering ability, high level of disease resistance, a diverse palate, high fertility, longevity, high butterfat milk, and beef with delicious flavor. All these traits translate into the potential to produce high quality beef and milk with low input costs. What DexStar aims to do is preserve these valuable traits while improving the quality of the cattle as well as the beef and milk they produce.
Now is the Time
The Dexter breed has a unique opportunity right now to establish itself as a go-to choice for the economic production of high quality beef and milk, produced on grass with low animal unit requirements (An animal unit (AU) in cattle is the number of acres it takes to support a cow/calf pair). An unusual set of circumstances has come together all at once to present this opportunity. Covid-19 exposed huge weaknesses in our food supply chain, eroding consumer confidence, causing them to look to other sources than the grocery store for their food. There is a growing consumer demand to know how their food is produced and where it is sourced. The amount of home grown food being purchased from small online vendors is increasing exponentially each year. The market for grass fed beef, poultry, pork and dairy is growing exponentially each year. Because of Covid and the ability to work remotely, there is a trend to purchase rural acreages and move outside of urban areas. All these factors translate into big opportunities for the Dexter breed. DexStar is the program that will prepare our breed to capture a share of this emerging market. The reality is, there is no other breed with the unique qualities of Dexter cattle that can do it.
So what is the vision of DexStar? I see a small dual purpose breed of cattle with very unique traits that once was considered a novelty and nothing more than a homestead cow. I see that small breed of cattle using those very unique traits to lift itself above the label of “homestead cow” and seize a portion of a wide open emerging market. I see the DexStar program being instrumental in improving both the breed and the quality of Dexter beef and milk while maintaining the traits that make this breed unique. I envision a day when, through the use of DexStar, the breed will increase in numbers and value.
Once again I ask each breeder to consider Hillel’s questions as it applies to the future of the Dexter breed “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” and make a commitment to participate in DexStar.
Information on how to enter your herd in DexStar will be provided in part two of this series.