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Dexter cattle are the smallest of the European cattle breeds, being about half the size of a traditional Hereford and about one third the size of a Friesian (Holstein) milking cow. They were considered a rare breed of cattle, until recently, but are now considered a recovering breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The Dexter breed originated in Ireland.
The Dexter breed originated in southwestern Ireland from which it was brought to England in 1882. The breed virtually disappeared in Ireland, but was still maintained as a pure breed in a number of small herds in England. The Dexter is a small breed with mature cows weighing between 600–700 pounds (270–320 kg) and mature bulls weighing about 1,000 pounds (450 kg). Considering their small size, the body is wide and deep with a well-rounded hindquarter. Although usually black, a dark-red or dun Dexter is sometimes found. All animals are always solid, with only very minor white marking on the udder or behind the navel. Horns are rather small and thick and grow outward with a forward curve on the male and upward on the cow. The breed is typically a dual-purpose type, although individual herd owners often concentrated on growing either a beef or a milk animal.
Dexters are classified as a small, friendly, dual-purpose breed; used for milk and beef. However they are often listed as a triple-purpose breed, since they are also used as oxen. Management practices vary by breeder and by country. Their versatility is one of their greatest assets, and probably has something to do with the number of countries Dexter cattle are found, including North America, South Africa, Australia, and much of Europe.
Beef animals in the US are expected to mature in 18 months and result in small cuts of high quality lean meat, graded US Choice, with little waste. The expectable average dress out is 50 to 70 percent. The beef produced by Dexters is well marbled and tends to be darker.
Dexters produce a rich milk, relatively high in butterfat (4%) and the quality of the milk overall is similar to that of the Jersey. Some claim the milk is more naturally homogenised than other milk due to the smaller fat globules. Dexters can reasonably be expected to produce 2 to 2.5 gallons (7.6 to 9.5 litres) per day.
The cows are exceptionally good mothers, hiding their calves almost from birth if there is any cover for them to hide. They will produce enough milk to feed 2–3 calves, and often will willingly nurse calves from other cows. They are known for easy calving. This trait, along with the small size of the calf, has produced a small but growing market in the United States for Dexter bulls to breed to first calf heifers among the larger beef breeds to eliminate problems at parturition.
Some Dexter cattle carry Chondrodysplasia, which is a form of dwarfism that results in shorter legs than non-affected Dexters. The Chondrodysplasia affected Dexters are typically 6–8 inches shorter in height than non-affected Dexters. Care should be taken to avoid breeding two Chondrodysplasia affected Dexters together as there is a 25% chance that the fetus can abort prematurely. A DNA test is available to test for the Chondrodysplasia gene by pulling tail hairs from the animal.
Dexters can also be affected with PHA (Pulmonary Hypoplasia with Anasarca) which is an incomplete formation of the lungs with accumulation of a serum fluid in various parts of the tissue of the fetus. Unlike Chondrodysplasia, which has many physical signs, PHA shows no outward signs and is only possible to detect through DNA testing. As with Chondrodysplasia, PHA affected Dexters should not be bred together.
Once very rare in both the UK and the US, Dexters have been enjoying a resurgence in both countries, with over 4,100 Dexter cows registered in 2007 by the Dexter Cattle Society in the UK – double the figure for 2000. "With high food prices, they are actually quite an attractive option if you like producing your own food,” said Sue Farrant, owner of four Dexters. "Both my husband and I have full-time jobs so we're keeping them on the side as an interest. They do largely look after themselves and they've been hugely popular with the children."
The popularity of Dexters has been fuelled by a desire for organic food, health concerns over factory farming, and soaring food prices. "The government has no interest in where our food comes from or how it tastes, so it's nice to set your own welfare and quality standards,” said poet and songwriter Pam Ayres, who has a small herd of Dexters on her 20-acre (81,000 m2) Cotswolds property. "If you've got a bit of land, a breed like the Dexter can work out a lot cheaper than the supermarket, plus they do a pretty good job of mowing the lawn."
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