Dexter Cow

One of the smaller breeds of cattle, Dexters have gained a following among homesteaders and small farmers. They are thought to be a very ancient breed, or at least, decended from ancient small breed cattle.

Producing more milk than a goat, but far less than full sized cattle, Dexters still produce enough to earn their status as a family milk cow. They are also kept for beef, and are reputed to produce a lean and tender meat.

They are a hardy breed, adapting well to less than ideal conditions. They do well on pasture, and require far less space than full sized cattle.

This breed, particularly, has a broad range of traits, depending on bloodlines. Some have breed them to be more self-sufficient than others, which affects ease of calving, productivity on pasture, etc. 

They also have a lethal dwarfism gene, which is referred to as a "bulldog" gene, which can cause newborn death in 25% of offspring if both the cow and bull have the gene. It is a recessive gene, and not all Dexters have this gene. This is why some Dexters have shorter necks and legs, while other dexters are proportioned more gracefully, and stand quite a bit taller. This is defintely something you want to know about any prospective cattle if you purchase a Dexter.

Calves of this breed are unbelievably tiny, and ultra-cute.

  • Type - Dual purpose
  • Size - Small
  • Production Capacity- Acceptable in relationship to their small size.
  • Special Features - Recessive dwarfism gene stunts growth of some Dexters, but can cause death in fetuses or newborns.
  • Best for Farms - Good choice for microfarms, and small homesteads.
  • Eggs, Milk, Meat Features - lean and tender meat
  • Other Products - not applicable
  • Historic or Contemporary Significance - One of the smallest cattle breeds, of particular value where space is limited.
  • Housing and Space Requirement - May be pastured on about 1/3 the pasturage per cow, compared to full sized breeds.
  • Regional Adaptations - Well adapted to cold and wet environments, adaptable to a range of conditions.
  • Feed Requirement - Small cow, less feed, but good forage will produce more milk.
  • Other Considerations - Dexters are a horned breed, and if they are not dehorned, the horns may reach just about waist or chest height on the average adult, making them a little more of a threat if they become aggressive (highly dependent upon the individual animal).



It seems that the Holstein is the bane of the Heritage Cattle world. Holsteins were bred for one purpose - to produce milk as fast as possible, and as much as possible, regardless of reduction in quality (which is significant, the cream is a washed out white color, and they have the lowest butterfat percentage and the lowest protein percentage of all cattle, and do not even produce enough butterfat for their milk to qualify as "whole milk" straight from the cow!). 

Historic breeds were adapted for various conditions, and as a result, came in many sizes, with higher quality milk than the Holstein. Some cows have twice the butterfat (this is a GOOD THING!), and quite a bit more protein than the Holstein, and whereas the milk of a Heritage cow generally has cream that rises yellow to the top of the jar, and is the same color as most butter in the stores, many breeds have lost the richness and high vitamin A content in the milk, to crossing with Holsteins to increase production (high vitamin A content is a combination of diet and genetics).

Honestly folks, if you are going to take a Jersey, or Guernsey cow, and turn it into a Holstein, why bother? Just use a Holstein and stop corrupting Heritage breeds and calling them purebreds!

We've lost much of the nutrition of whole milk, and we've lost the quality of meat produced by slower growing cattle. When cows are pushed to produce abnormally fast, or abnormal amounts of milk or meat, the body of the cattle takes shortcuts, resulting in meat that is more difficult for many people to digest, and milk that has lower nutritional value.

So, if we are going to get back to Heritage Cattle, we really need to make sure the cows we are preserving are those that do NOT have Holstein blood in them. 

Our preference for raising cattle is on pasture, but we realize that many small farms must compromise due to a lack of space. Especially those microfarms where cow's milk is needed, but space is very limited.

We really don't recommend having a milk or beef cow on a farm that is less than 5 acres. Goats, or even sheep, are more suited to smaller farms for milk production. Even so, sometimes it ends up being a necessity when cow's milk is better digested than goat milk, or when a family requires the ability to easily make butter.

One of the great misunderstandings about cattle is that they can only eat four things: Grass, Alfalfa, COB (Corn, Oats, and Barley), and Pelleted Feed. This is a great nutritional disservice to cows, who can eat a wide range of feeds, including much garden produce, many plants that grow in mixed pastures very well (not just grasses, but clovers, vetch, field peas, wildflowers, and much more). Mixed pastures are superior forage for cattle, providing a wider range of nutrition, lots of seed heads, and good mixed hay for winter. Providing good mixed pasture can reduce or eliminate the need for grain, and make pelleted feed completely unnecessary (we think it SHOULD be unnecessary). 

Cows come in a range of sizes, from miniature (such as the Dexter), up to those as large as the Holstein. In between we have the Jersey, the Brown Swiss, and other cattle of varying sizes. 

Miniature cows usually less than half the milk of a full sized cow, and will produce less than half the amount of beef as well - often only a quarter. They fit on far less pasture though, and can be raised on 2 acres or so, instead of 5-10 per cow (for good grazing, without excessive damage to the land). They may be a good choice for many people, in part because they may feel much easier to handle than larger cattle. 

One of the great losses in Heritage Cattle is the virtual disappearance of Dual Purpose cattle. Too often, Dual Purpose cattle breeds have been "preserved" only by up-breeding for beef production. The milking qualities have been lost to this. This is one reason why some breeds have split, with the Milking variety retaining the historic Dual Purpose traits, and being the more rare, and the Beef variety being the more common. With the majority of breeds though, milking traits have been entirely lost, and only beef traits remain, which has caused these breeds to lose much of their utility on small self-sufficient farms, where Dual Purpose cattle are of far more value than single purpose.

This change in historic breeds is one reason that many breeds which originally would have been excellent choices for our listings, are not found here. Honestly, one more beef breed that has nothing distinctive in performance over any other beef breed, and which is so rare as to be impossible to obtain, is not a practical option for small farms! 

The breeds we chose to list are those that we feel have the most value and are most worth preserving for homesteads, microfarms, small self-sufficiency farms, and small pasture based farms.

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