Dexter Cattle are the world’s smallest natural breed of cattle. This naturally small breed of cattle originated in the rugged countryside of Ireland.  They were bred by small landholders and roamed about the shelterless mountains in an almost wild state of nature. Known as the poor man’s cow, Dexters provided milk and beef for the family, and the draft power to plow the fields.

The breed is assumed to be a cross between Kerry Cattle and some other breed, probably a Devon.  It is also claimed that a “Mr. Dexter,” who was an agent to Lord Hawarden, is responsible for the breed.
Dexters were first brought to the United States in the early 1900’s. Roughly 200 Dexters were imported from 1905-1915. Imports have continued throughout the years and advances in artificial insemination have given breeders the ability to add the blood lines of the best bulls from around the world to their herds.

Modern day Dexters continue to be known for their small size and hardy nature.  They require less pasture to feed than other breeds.  They thrive in hot as well as cold climates and do well outdoors year-round. Dexters need minimal shelter, access to clean water, and feed. Fertility is high in Dexters and calves are dropped in the field without difficulty. They are a tri-purpose breed and are used for beef, milk, and also for draft animals.

Dexter cows produce an average of 1-3 gallons of milk per day; there are some exceptional cows that will produce even more!  The milk is comparable in fat content with Jersey milk and has a smoother texture because it has smaller fat globules than milk from other breeds.  This also makes the milk easier to digest.  In fact, many people who are lactose intolerant find they can drink Dexter milk without any reaction.  Dexter milk can also be used to make cheese, yogurt, butter, soap, lotion, and other products.

A2A2 info – Many people are becoming interested in the A2 Beta Casein information.  Therefore, many Dexter breeders are now including testing for this in their regular regime.  Googling the topic will offer several informational articles that you can study to further your own research.

Dexters produce high quality beef.  Steers will finish on grass or hay alone at 18-24 months of age.  Hot carcass weights are usually around 400-500 lbs.  That’s a yield of 60%-65% of live weight.  Proportionately, Dexters have more square inches of rib eye than larger breeds of cattle. Since Dexters naturally have fine marbling throughout the muscle, the meat is tender and flavorful without having to be put on hormones or grain.  In blind taste tests, Dexters consistently finish in the top three.  Below are the results from one  blind taste test.

ALBC beef taste test 2008

What’s the Beef?  An Historical and Culinary First

On June 20, 2008, approximately 70 food professionals:  chefs, food writers and connoisseurs gathered @ Ayrshire Farm, Upperville, VA, to participate in a blind-tasting which compared beef from 8 rare heritage breeds and two widely available breeds of cattle.

The mission of the event was to make a flavor comparison of beef from these 10 breeds to demonstrate the culinary diversity they represent, as well as the value of conserving rare breeds.  “We have to eat them to save them,” said Sandy Lerner the host of the tasting.  “When we eat them we are giving farmers an economic reason to conserve rare breeds and the important genetic diversity they represent.”

This unique event presented meat from the chuck section of each breed roasted simply, without spices, and cut into bite-sized pieces in covered dishes at numbered stations.  Numbered toothpicks and scorecards were provided to aid in evaluating the beef.  The meat was scored based on flavor, texture, tenderness, smell, and appearance.

The breeds tested were:  Ancient White Park, Angus, Dexter, Galloway, Highland, Milking Devon, Pineywoods, Randall Lineback, Red Poll, and (beef) Shorthorn.  Many of these breeds are endangered and are considered important reservoirs of genetic diversity by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.  As examples of critically rare remnants of landrace cattle that helped found the United States, Pineywoods cattle are adapted to the deep South and Randall Lineback cattle are native to New England.

After tasting the beef, the enthusiastic crowd was asked to vote for their favorite number before the breed identities were revealed.  The winner of the popular vote in this ground-breaking tasting was the Randall Lineback, with second place going to the Galloway and third to the Dexter.  The top three favorites each received nearly twice as many votes for the first place as any of the other breeds tasted.

Though some breeds had few supporters as first choice, it should be noted that many of these breeds garnered second and third placements on individuals’ tally cards.  “I was amazed how different people preferred different breeds to such an extent that there was no obvious winner,”  remarked Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen of Edible Chesapeake.

All but three of the breeds – the Milking Devon, the Randall Lineback, and the Red Poll – had been finished on Ayrshire Farm, fed an organic finishing feed, and raised and processed humanely, following Humane Farm Animal Care’s standards.  The Randall Lineback was grown and finished on Chapel Hill Farm.  The Milking Devon and the Red Poll were grass-finished as there were no steers available to finish on grain due to rarity and herd reduction following the drought of 2007.

This event was the largest comparison of beef breeds in North America to date and it successfully demonstrated that each of these breeds is valuable for the unique culinary experience it offers. To quote one attendee, Lina Burton of The Mercer House, “And the beef – who would have thought that they really did taste different, and were so much better than what is available commercially in the supermarket?”

What’s the Beef – An Historical Event was produced through a partnership of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Humane Farm Animal Care, Slow Food USA, and Ayrshire Farm.

The Results:
First place and winner of the tasting w/19 votes – the Randall Lineback
Second place w/11 votes – the Galloway
Third place w/10 votes – the Dexter
Fourth Place w/6 votes – the Highland
Tied for Fifth place w/5 votes – the Red Poll & the Angus
Tied for Sixth place w/3 votes – the Ancient White Park & the Shorthorn (beef)
Tied for Seventh with 0 votes – the Milking Devon & the Pineywoods

Participants voted only for their first choice.  Many breeds, like the Pineywoods and Milking Devon, were second or third choices for many participants.A2A2 info – Many people are becoming interested in the A2 Beta Casein information.  Therefore, many Dexter breeders are now including testing for this in their regular regime.  Googling the topic will offer several informational articles that you can study to further your own research.

Conformation is important in Dexters.  The rib capacity (spring of rib), build of the cow, hook-to-pin, leg structure, hoof/feet placement, and set of head all contribute to the overall thriftiness of the animal, enabling ease of birth, swift movement from predators, and conversion of feed.

Below is a file that details what to look for in general conformation of a bovine.

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