Dexters: Small cattle with big potential

CLAYSVILLE, Pa. — The first time Marcia Read heard about Dexter cattle, there was no question about it. She had to have some.

Read was infatuated with the Dexters’ small stature, versatility and ability to eat almost anything. These unique, pony-sized cattle were perfect for her farm and it wasn’t long before she bought a small, dairy-type cow named Peerless Chopper.

“I was so smitten with her,” Read said.

It was 1973 when Dexters debuted on Read’s Pennsylvania farm and Read has never doubted her unconventional decision.

At first, she just raised bull calves, although after a couple of years, she wanted to try milking.

“When I started, no one milked a Dexter,” Read said.

But that didn’t stop her.

Read also dehorned her cattle and raised them on grass, choices that didn’t exactly fit with mainstream ideas at the time.

Once again, Read wasn’t too worried about how everyone else was doing it.

Over the past 35 years, those initial decisions turned out to be successful. Read now raises about 25 grass-fed Dexters on her 165-acre farm in Claysville, Pa., using a schedule that keeps one or two cows at a time in milk.

Just right

Read said the breed is perfect for a farmer such as herself. A full-grown Dexter weighs 450-800 pounds and stands 36-42 inches tall, a size that Read finds manageable. Calves weight 25-35 pounds at birth.

Read milks by hand and the cows produce just the right amount of milk for daily use.

A Dexter’s size also has advantages when it comes to marketing, Read said, because in some cases, consumers are looking for smaller portions. At 125-150 pounds, a side of beef from one of her Dexter bull calves is much smaller than a side of beef from a conventional breed. The cuts of meat from Dexters are also smaller, with most T-bones the size of pork chops.

While most of Read’s bull calves are marketed privately for meat, some are occasionally sold as bulls.
Heifers are typically sold to other Dexter breeders, with buyers coming from as far away as Georgia, North Carolina and New York.

Grass-fed

For Read, the decision to go grass-fed was simply a personal preference.
But that sometimes makes her product a hard sell.

“It’s hard to market grass-fed beef. It’s still a new concept to a lot of people,” Read said.

But the slow food concept is something Read has always felt passionately about, even before grocery stores offered things like cage-free eggs and organic cereal.

“The slow food movement is really just focusing on how people used to eat,” she said.

Read, who also works as a librarian, does some rotational grazing and said she is working more of it into her farm plan. Dexters are known for eating everything from weeds to shrubs, so they make good grazers.

“They’re really more than just a pretty face. They are so hardy,” Read said.

Genetics

The farmer contributes much of her success to her herd bull, Hiyu A Dora. Bred to throw heifers with good udders, the bull’s quality and consistency is outstanding, according to Read.

Hiyu A Dora was born in British Columbia and later purchased by a farmer in Maryland. As the animal grew, the farmer decided he didn’t want a mature bull on the farm. Never one to miss an opportunity, Read made the farmer an offer: Trade her the bull for a heifer.

Hiyu A Dora’s genetic background is especially important because in the past, there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on conformation in the Dexter breed. But things are changing on that front and breeders are improving things like feet and udders. While advancing genetics does make for better animals, Read said they are still a homestead-type animal.

“I still think they should be promoted as the ultimate backyard cow,” said Read, who also raises Haflingers, miniature donkeys, pygmy goats, and rare breed Jacob and Tunis sheep.

While everything from genetics to herd management has changed in the 35 years since Read brought that first Dexter to her farm, one thing has remained the same.

She’s still got to have them.

About the Author

Former reporter Janelle Skrinjar wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2005 to 2009. More Stories by Janelle Skrinjar

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