Irish Hills Dexter Cattle Farm
We're a brand new farm in the Irish Hills area, breeding and raising Dexter Cattle as part of the Traditional Dexter Cattle preservation project
What is a Heritage Breed?
Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers. These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture.
Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.
Heritage animals once roamed the pastures of America’s pastoral landscape, but today these breeds are in danger of extinction. Modern agriculture has changed, causing many of these breeds to fall out of favor. Heritage breeds store a wealth of genetic resources that are important for our future and the future of our agricultural food system
The “Heritage” Dexter
Dexter cattle are among the smallest of cattle breeds in the world, standing 40" tall and weighing 700–900 pounds. Though size is the breed’s most distinguishing characteristic, the Dexter is a useful and productive, multi‑purpose animal.
The Dexter originated in southern Ireland during the early 1800s. It was developed from the Kerry, an Irish dairy breed, through selection for smaller size and improved beef qualities. The breed name came from a “Mr. Dexter,” who promoted the cattle during the mid‑1800s. The Dexter became popular with smallholders in Ireland and in England, who appreciated its efficiency in producing both milk and beef on limited acreage. Dexters were imported to North America beginning in 1910.
Even after the Dexter gained an identity as a breed, its history remained intertwined with that of the Kerry. For many years the two breeds were registered in a single herdbook, and some people considered Dexters to be a dwarf type of Kerry. Recent bloodtyping research, however, has determined that the Dexter and the Kerry, though closely related, are genetically distinct breeds. They should not be crossbred with each other.
Dexter cattle are solid and compact in appearance. Most Dexters are black, though red and dun are also found. The cattle are horned, and their black‑tipped white horns arc upward. Two body conformations are found within the breed: cattle with normal bodies and very short legs, and cattle, which are proportionately small in every dimension. Because the short‑legged type occasionally produces nonviable offspring, it has fallen out of favor, while the proportionate type has become more popular.
The Dexter has always attracted attention because of its size, and it has sometimes been marketed as a novelty or ornamental breed. This practice has obscured the breed’s production value. Dexters are hardy, forage‑efficient cattle with excellent maternal qualities. As with other dual‑purpose breeds, the quantity of milk produced varies between strains; those strains that have had more dairy selection produce more milk, while those that have been selected for beef produce less. The milk produced is high in solids, making it ideal for butter and cheese production. Dexter beef is lean and high in quality. The small size of the carcass makes the breed an excellent choice for use in direct marketing programs. Dexters are good browsers and can rid pastures of some pest plants, and they may also be used as oxen.
Dexter cattle are increasing in numbers in North America and globally, and the breed seems destined to succeed. The challenge facing breeders, however, is to maintain historic selection practices so that the Dexter’s production qualities are conserved and promoted.
The Preservation Project
Legacy Dexter Cattle Registry
Legacy began in an effort to raise awareness among Dexter breeders of imported bulls/semen of animals bred from the English upgrade/appendix registry. The US dexter associations at no time in their history ever permitted upgrading(outcrossing). A Legacy founder discovered these upgraded bloodlines and their overwhelming presence in the US registrations. US breeders had never been advised of the upgraded/outcrossed bloodlines and the traditional foundation pure bloodlines in the US were disappearing at an alarming rate.
Breeders interested in preserving these bloodlines were required to DNA genotype their cattle and to parentage confirm their calves to maintain integrity in the preservation effort. UCD-VGL was the choice for this testing. Legacy also worked to make a DNA record of all the oldest Dexters in the US using donated funds. As the DNA database and interest in the preservation effort grew Legacy began to expand the testing and registration program to all Dexter owners.