Homesteading is about simplicity, self reliance and doing as much as you can with as little as possible, always with an eye on the bottom line.
So when it comes to considering large livestock, selecting an animal species or specific breed that provides multiple benefits should be the goal. A homesteaders selection criteria is not just milk or beef, but rather milk and beef. But livestock can provide more than food, their byproducts can be used for soap and other artisan crafts. They can provide soil fertility, weed clearing, provide a little extra income from their abundance, and/or be a hobby as many livestock owners enjoy showing and exhibiting their animals.
But, livestock do not need to be “large” to offer big benefits, and especially for smaller acreages there is none that can out-perform a Dexter.
Different from other cattle breeds, beef type or dairy, Dexters are not bred and raised for quantity production but rather quality of product. A Dexter will provide excellent quality beef and superior milk in manageable quantities. No, they will not ”feed the world”, but they will efficiently convert grass and browse into nutritious and delicious food for a family.
With their naturally small size, Dexters are ideal for grass-fed/grass-finished beef. Depending on your preference you can harvest as early as eighteen months for a leaner product or wait until twenty-four months for more marbling. Ask any butcher or chef that has had the opportunity to taste Dexter beef and they will validate that it is notably better tasting than typical beef breeds. Another notable advantage is the conversion ratio from hanging weight to cut & wrap weight where a typical beef breed will usually be in the 40-50% range, a Dexter harvested at the an optimum time will be in the 50-55%+ range with the smaller cut sizes more aligned with dietary guidelines for recommended serving size.
Dexter milk is different from the better known homesteading dairy breeds like Jerseys or Guernsey. Although the butterfat is touted at an impressive 4% (surely diet can affect this) it is naturally more homogenized into the milk so the cream separation is not as pronounced which is a wonderful attribute when making cheese. Even after skimming the cream, the remaining milk is anything but thin (non-fat) “skimmed milk”. Compared to the typical heavy cream texture of Jersey milk, Dexter milk is known for its lighter fresher taste.
A Dexter cow will produce one to two gallons of milk at a milking, which is much less milk than a specialized dairy breed, but Dexters are intended to be a dual purpose family cow (beef and dairy), so the goal is to provide fresh daily milk for a family, provide for the growing calf (which will one day be beef) and still remain in good body condition herself.
But homesteaders need more than quality beef and milk. Homesteaders need efficiency and low maintenance and Dexters are exactly that. Commercial beef and dairy producers are sadly coming to terms with the reality that “bigger does not equal better”. They have bred for higher volume, without the financial considerations of the higher inputs and maintenance required to achieve those volumes. A commercial dairy cow requires massive feed and pharmaceutical inputs to achieve this high volume, and this high production burden has reduced the expected life span to a mere five years. Just as deficient, a beef raiser must be prepared to “pull” (assist with) calves increasing the potential of financial loss from added manpower needed, risk of mortality of both calf and cow, and impaired fertility of the cow.
Juxtapose all of that to a Dexter which is hardy, thriving in a wide variety of locals. The use of vaccines or the need for antibiotics is rare. They are small cattle so require less to keep good body condition thus offering more pounds per acre than a larger breed would. A Dexter cow should deliver her first healthy calf when she is two years old, and birth easily and consistently until she is eighteen years old. Given this longevity, a Dexter cow could out produce a production breed over the course of her lifetime.
For convenience, homesteaders often use a strategy called share-milking or once-a-day milking where they leave the calf with the mother until six -ten months old, separating them at night, milking in the morning and then putting them together for the rest of the day, freeing the homesteader from bottle feeding and providing the calf with greater growth potential and protective antibodies that can only be provided by its mother’s milk. One other huge advantage to using this strategy specifically with Dexters is the luxury of milking being “optional.” With other dairy breeds, this is not an option – they must be milked at least once a day, every day, no matter what, whether you need milk or not, no days off for any reason.
But probably the most appreciated attribute of Dexters is their manageable size. While the sheer bulk of standard breeds present management challenges, the less intimidating size of Dexters give young people, women and even seniors the satisfaction of being able to “manage ‘em themselves.” Add their typically friendly, unthreatening temperaments and it is easy to understand how they quickly become endeared more as a “family pet” easily integrating into the daily life of a homestead making them the ideal family cow.
Originally Dexters were mostly small, black and horned, but today there is a wide range of sizes, body types as well as red and dun colored and even polled (hornless) genetics within the purebred US herd. But much more important than what color or what size, is to learn what good conformation looks like, including feet and udders (and scrotum sack if you are purchasing a bull), and what a good temperament looks like. So first, do some studying, then, do some looking. Look at as many as you can. By seeing many live examples the difference between good and bad traits becomes obvious.
When it finally comes to investing in any large livestock, the homesteader motto: “why pay more when you can pay less?” is answered with “Because you will spend more when you spend less.”
The initial investment of large livestock is nothing compared to the maintenance, infrastructure needed and potential health issues that might be undetectable without knowing what to look for or by getting proof of a clean bill of health by a veterinarian or validation with simple and affordable genetic testing.
Next, you need to know from where it came. This is where current registration papers become cheap insurance as they not only provide the pedigree and the record of ownership over the animal’s lifetime, but can also show any genetic testing done, which is like looking under the hood when you are buying a car-a very good idea. Lurking in the DNA are both desirable and undesirable genes and you would surely want to know whether they are present or not.
Seek out an experienced reputable Dexter breeder who understands the importance of accurate record keeping and registration, and who raises their cattle in a way that resonates with you. Dexter breeders are as varied as Dexter themselves; from fellow homesteaders with their eye on practicality and functionality to others focusing on breeding “show quality” stock. Some breeders love raising the very small Dexters as a hobby and some are passionate about preserving the rare ancient bloodlines within the Dexter breed. So if your main goal is a quiet Dexter to milk, look for a breeder who actually milks their Dexters. If you want to show cattle, find a breeder who excels at that.
An experienced reputable breeder takes pride in their Dexters genetics. Their calves are not from an accidental breeding with a herd mate who got castrated too late or some random convenient bull down the road. Sires and dams were specifically chosen to bring the strengths of one to offset a weakness in the other and to provide other desired genetic traits resulting with each generation of offspring being an improvement from the previous one. And when you buy from a reputable Dexter breeder you are not just buying the animal, you are buying the breeder and their wealth of experience as well.
A reputable Dexter breeder loves their Dexters, and will do all they can to ensure that you do too by mentoring you if you are new to livestock, and being available to answer questions or offer advice long after your initial purchase. So the few hundred extra dollars that you might spend when buying a purebred registered Dexter is money well spent.
This article was printed in Countryside Magazine Spring 2019