The farm I grew up on was in Upstate New York. We primarily raised Morgan horses, but Dad always had plenty of other critters around, too. I still remember the first cow he brought home. Her name was Daisy, and she was a Charolais. That cow would just walk through fences like they weren’t even there. Dad spent more time chasing her around the neighborhood than anything else. Needless to say, she didn’t last long on our farm.
The day he brought home Cupcake and Sprinkles was a magical day indeed for a little girl (I was about 12 years old at the time). Those two little Dexter cows were the sweetest things ever. It was love at first sight! I had never heard of miniature cows at that time; they were not common at all in our area back then. I’ve had a lot more experience with Dexters, and other cattle breeds, since then.
Now that I’m older, I try to look at things from a more practical standpoint, and not just rely on cuteness alone! There are definite pros and cons to raising Dexters, so it’s a good idea to do some research before you decide which breed of cattle to add to your homestead.
The Pros of Raising Dexter Cattle
The smaller size of Dexter cattle is definitely a pro in my opinion. I have seen Dexters that are as big as a small Jersey cow, but they can also be as small as a large dog. They are definitely much smaller than a Guernsey or Holstein. If you have small children that will be around your livestock, that is definitely an advantage. Full-size cows can be very intimidating, and even the sweetest, gentle cow can accidentally step on a foot or become panicked and possibly do some serious damage. The potential for injury is much smaller with a smaller animal.
2. Cost of Feeding
Their smaller size also means that they eat less, which means that they can be more affordable to feed than a full-sized cow. This will, of course, vary from cow to cow, though. If your Dexter is nearly as big as a Jersey, then you’re probably not going to notice much difference in your feed bill. The amount of quality pasture that your cow has access to is also going to be a factor, so there are a lot of variables to consider. Our Dexters were just a little bigger than a large German Shepherd, and they didn’t eat as much as a Jersey between the two of them.
3. They’re Tough
Dexter cattle are very cold hardy. They don’t seem to mind the cold at all, so you don’t have to worry about an elaborate shelter for them. In fact, a three-sided shelter might be enough in all but the coldest climates. Ours always had access to their shelter, but most of the time, they preferred to be out in the open. Thee breed originated in Ireland, so they’re well adapted to rocky terrain, harsh weather, and even lower quality pasture.
4. Smaller Yields
Dexters will have lower yields of both milk and meat than a full-sized cow. On the small farm or homestead, this can be a plus, especially if you have a small family. Jersey’s produce a lot of milk, and at certain times of the year, it can be too much. Also, when you butcher a full-sized cow for the freezer, there’s little room left for anything else in there. However, if you have a large family, a full-sized cow probably makes a lot more sense for you. So, technically, this could be a pro or a con, depending on what your needs are.
5. They are Dual Purpose
Dexters are great milk producers, especially for their size. But, they are also fleshy cows that produce delicious, well-marbled meat, if that’s what you want to raise them for.
6. Dexters Make Great Mothers
They make great mommas and usually have no trouble raising two calves at one time. They also make easy work of calving, which is important if you live in a remote area where a good vet is hard to come by. (It can sometimes be hard to find a bull, though, so keep that in mind, too.)
So, what are the Cons?
1. They can be Hard to Find and Expensive to Buy
Because they are still quite rare, they can be very hard to find in some areas of the country. Not only that but when you do find them, they are usually quite expensive, often selling for $1500 or more, each. On the other hand, once you’ve made the initial investment, selling the offspring might be a possible source of additional income on your homestead.
2. Breeding Standards are Changing
Although Dexter cattle are still a dual-purpose breed, the majority of Dexter cattle breeders are more focused on raising high-quality, grass-fed beef. That means that the genes that make them a good dairy cow are slowly being bred out of them. They don’t breed them for good udders or high milk production, so if you are primarily looking for a milk cow, you may end up disappointed.
3. Genetic Problems
Dexter cattle are prone to a few different genetic disorders. There’s testing that can be done to avoid the problem, but it’s definitely something to be aware of when you’re making your decision.
So, with all of that taken into consideration, are Dexter cattle the perfect family cow for the small farm or homestead? Honestly, the answer is going to be different for every situation. If you really want a dual-purpose breed, but you don’t have a lot of space, Dexters might make the best sense for you, especially if your family is small.
On the other hand, if you primarily want a milk cow, starting out with a Jersey is more affordable to purchase, and you’ll have enough milk for drinking and making your own dairy products, too. In the end, it all depends on your needs, the amount of space you have, and the availability of quality animals in your area.