Who has been with me long enough that they remember Maybelle?
We cut our cow raising teeth on Maybelle. She was a dear ornery Dexter cow we bought and jumped in head first into the joys of keeping a family cow & the delights of raw milk. The appeal of larger amounts of fresh, raw milk than what a goat can give (without all the antics of a goat) and the promises of Dexter’s being the “Ideal Small Farm Cow” lured us in and we’ve been enjoyed owning dairy cattle every day since.
If you were around back then, you’ll remember that we bought a bred, dry cow and ended up bringing home an open, lactating one! If that isn’t head first, I don’t know what is! Learning to milk was easy the easy part. The real trouble was how to get her bred! Dexters aren’t quite as easy to find and so we did the only logical thing… really it was crazy… we went back and bought the bull! Yes, the bull. Approximately .004563 seconds after we bought the cow. Ok, so it was more like a couple days. Point being, we still had no idea what we were doing!
Once Maybelle was confirmed bred, we had a bull we no longer needed and no market to sell so we decided to fill the freezer with grass-fed beef and called up the butcher. The waiting list to get him in was months! And the cost to butcher him would be hundreds of dollars. We were already $800 in the hole on breeding and now we’d have to feed him hay for several months plus the butchering costs. It was money and time we didn’t have to spare so we did the only logical thing… really it was crazy… we butchered him ourselves.
We kept Maybelle around long enough for her to give us 3 calves before she died when she was 7 years old. Needing a source of nourishment for her little heifer she left, we bought a cull cow, Holly, from our new neighbor, an organic dairy farmer.
Two years and several Jerseys later, we no longer own any Dexters at this time and it has left many of you wondering, “Why aren’t you raising Dexter’s anymore?” and “What did you really think of them?”
Here are the pros and cons of raising Dexter cattle in our experience:
(If you’re considering raising heritage breed livestock, you’ll surely be interested in listening to this episode of Christian Farm & Homestead Radio. It’s full of information and you’ll want to factor into your decision.)
Yes, Dexters are small. Though their size can vary from a large dog all the way up to small Jersey, they’re still a lot smaller than say a Holstein or Guernsey. That’s a real benefit, especially if you new to cows or if your children will be handling them. Large ones can be intimidating. And rightly so. If you’re not used to handling a cow and you get stepped on, it’s a lot easier to take a toe crunching from a Dexter.
Low Feed Requirements
I’m including this as a “pro” in favor of Dexter ownership, so many folks claim this to be true, but I’ll be honest we haven’t noticed a difference in how much a Jersey will eat compared with our Dexters.
Actually your feed bill doesn’t go as far with Dexters.
When you compare their intake of feed to their output of milk or meat, a conventional cow converts more of their food into your food than a Dexter will.
But I’m not going to argue with other farmer’s experiences. Maybe their Dexter’s did eat less. I’m just saying that it’s not a guarantee.
The heritage of this heritage breed makes them very cold hardy. Weather never phased our Dexters. We did have a barn, but the side the cows had access to in the winter was more of a glorified run-in. The entire back side was completely open, allowing the elements (particularly that fresh air) to come inside.
That said, we don’t pamper our Jerseys. They’re afforded similar protection during the winter months. Most of the time they choose not to avail themselves of it. They grow out a nice thick and warm protective coat of fur just like the Dexter’s. Our first Jersey calf was born on a cold and blustery day in March and it didn’t phase him. So if cold-hardy is holding you back, don’t let it be a hangup.
If you’re looking to get milk and meat from one animal rather than buying a couple different breeds to serve both purposes (and you don’t need very much of either), a Dexter might be a good choice. While you can eat the beef of dairy breeds or milk a beef cow, you’re not going to get as much beef from the former or milk from the latter. Considering their frame size, proportionally, a Dexter cow will be more fleshy (=more meat) than a dairy breed. While a Jersey has a meat conversion rate of 47%, a Dexter will yield more like 60%.
Lower Milk Yields
The fact of the matter is that dual purpose heritage breeds generally don’t give as much milk as their milky dairy cousins. Maybelle was an excellent producer for a Dexter. Without a calf, she’d give us 4 gallons a day, but when she had a baby with her she really held back for the calf and we never even came close to those initial figures again. On average, Maybelle shared about 2 gallons a day with us at her peak production. Normally it was more like a gallon.
To compare, our Jersey, Holly, who came from a production organic dairy is giving us 2-3 gallons a day… and we’re still able to leave the calf with her 24/7. Who knows how much we’ll get when they begin to be separate overnight!
We have 2 other Jersey’s who were formerly the milk cows of another family whose owner passed away. They don’t give nearly as much milk as Holly does. Stella, the only one of those two in milk right now is giving us about a gallon a day. And that’s with the calf off of her overnight! If you shop well, you too may be able to find a small Jersey cow who won’t be exploding the fridge with 8 new half gallon jars every day.
It’s said that Dexter’s are easy birthers and in my experience that has been the case. Because they don’t suck every last ounce of nutrition from their bones like a dairy breed, Dexters aren’t as prone to milk fever and other freshening problems associated with calving. It’s virtually unheard of to pull a Dexter calf. (It’s also very, very rare to pull a Jersey though.) One of Maybelle’s births went so easy in fact she ate her way through the whole thing and continued to eat as the calf slipped out behind her.
Good Grass-Fed Conversion
As I mentioned before Dexter’s have a meat conversion rate of 60%… and that’s on grass! Not too shabby. If you’re looking for a source of grass-fed, homegrown meat, getting the most from the cow, and don’t need large quantities of meat (a Dexter will hang at about 400 pounds, whereas an Angus will be a coupla’ few hundred pounds more), Dexters might fit your bill.
Easy to Breed
IF, and it’s a big if for a small scale homesteader, you have a bull, Dexters readily settle when their reproduction is handled au naturale, but their success rate goes way down when you start to AI, reportedly it’s 50-60%. That’s a major consideration for someone who is going to need to get this cow bred once a year. If you do manage to get your hands on a bull (figuratively of course) your cow should take pretty easily. Especially if you tie her up. (Sorry Maybelle.)
Easy to Digest Milk
Much like a goat’s milk, Dexter milk has smaller fat globules so it stays homogenized longer. (Eventually, the cream will rise, it just takes longer.) The smaller fat globules may mean that folks who have a difficult time digesting milk may be able to drink Dexter milk.
Without testing, you never can be sure if your cow is positive for the A2/A2 beta casein protein that supposedly make milk more digestible along with a myriad of other purported health benefits, but Dexter advocates claim that the breed primarily produces A2 milk.
Should you care? I’m not sure. Honestly, I’m not convinced that the health benefits are really there and suspect that any detriments to ones health caused by drinking modern A1 milk are more likely to stem for the cows heavily grain fed diet compared to their grass-fed A2 ancestors. But what do I know?
Because Dexters are more difficult to find (and probably because small scale farmers are willing to pay for them) Dexter’s can be much more expensive to purchase than a conventional breed. It’s that whole supply & demand thing. You can easily expect to pay about $1500-$2000 for a Dexter cow (though I have seem them as low as $800).
Wait! I thought their small size was a “pro?” Well it depends on what your goals are. If you’re looking for milk & you don’t care how you get it, Dexters sure are a lot bigger than a goat. And frankly, depending on the breed, a goat might give you nearly as much milk for a lot less initial cost or maintenance. If you’re determined to have a cow to love on instead of a crazy goat to try to manage like we were, then size doesn’t matter. (And no offense to you goat people, I’m just thankful that I’m not having to get my cows heads out of the fencing nearly as often- try never- as my neighbor does their goats. I hope you’ll still love me even though I don’t have the time or the energy for a goat. If I did though I’d have an Oberhasli. They’re cute!)
Breeding Standards Vary
This is a major con, especially if you are looking for a family milk cow. In our area, Dexter breeders are primarily focused on raising grass-fed beef and are selecting genetics out of their herd to encourage beefiness with little concern about the structure of udders, teats, and milk yields. This is going to be very discouraging to first-time dairy farmers because hand milking a cow that has teats that are too thick, too short, too thin, too spongy (is that a technical teat description? I don’t know, but if you’ve every milked a cow with spongy teats, you’ll know what a pain it is) because milking time will be a struggle to get the milk to the pail. You’re already learning a new skill and building muscles you didn’t even know you had. You don’t need to be dealing with crappy teats. And by that I mean teats with poor structure ’cause if you have a family milk cow, you will surely deal with crappy teats. And by that I mean teats with crap on them.
The point is that when you’re dealing with conventional dairy breeds, you know going into the game that dairy breeds are bred for milk & beef breeds are bred for meat and you know what you’re getting right from the start.
Lower Milk Yields
Conventional dairy breeds have been selectively bred over time to be able to produce enough milk for both her calf and her owner. Not so with heritage breed cattle such as Dexter’s. Though Dexter’s can give higher yields than other heritage breeds, especially considering their size, they haven’t been bred to give much more milk than what is necessary to feed their calves. (Forget using the calf as a relief milker if you want more than ½-1 gallon day.) While that could be a good thing, as mentioned above, it can also be a bad thing if you have a large growing family *ahem*. Or if you want to delve into the world of cheesemaking *ahem*. If you need higher milk yields for whatever reason, maybe a Dexter isn’t the right cow for you.
Lower Milk Fat
Though it can vary by breeding, Dexter’s generally have 4% butterfat. While that’s not as low as Holstein milk (3%), it’s not as high as a Jersey or Guernsey which is closer to 5%. If having rich cream for making butter & ice cream is a priority to you, then you might want to take this into consideration. Maybelle, on her best days, gave us about a 1″ cream line. Normally, our Jerseys give us at least double that, but Candy Creamline gives us a solid 3-4″!!
Chondrodysplasia (Dwarfism) and Pulmonary Hypoplasia with Anasarca are 2 genetic problems among Dexter cattle. They can be tested for and avoided, but it still is a something you must be aware of and watch out for when choosing a cow.
While Dexters are not quite as gentle and easy-going as a Jersey, they’re not quite as lively as a goat (sorry). Maybelle was a sassy little thing and I’m convinced would step on our toes on purpose. It would take us quite some time each new lactation to get her to stop kicking and when you’re milking by hand, that’s a whole lot of buckets of precious milk lost to a dirty hoof being stomped down into it!
Difficult to Find
If you don’t have many breeders in your state, finding a Dexter can be quite a task. If you’re willing to drive, that could help, but you’re already looking at shelling out a couple grand, so finding the cow & a way to haul her interstate is a significant obstacle. If you’re going to be picky and find a good milk cow, you had better be very patient waiting to make your bovine dreams a reality.
Dries Up Naturally
Because Dexters naturally will only produce as much milk as their calves need, they will start to dry themselves up naturally as well. Maybelle never once had to be dried up prior to calving, she was usually dry weeks beforehand. With our Jersey’s we need to be much more proactive with drying them up. If you weren’t able to successfully get the cow bred on schedule, this is pretty big “con.” We wanted to push back Holly’s breeding schedule a couple months last year so that she would freshen on new grass and not when it’s snowy & blustery up here on Hurricane Hill. But we had trouble recognizing her signs of being in heat, so it wasn’t until we got a Heat Detection Machine in here that we were able to get her bred…. which pushed her lactation 4 months longer than it normally would have been! Had that been Maybelle, she would have been dried up for 6 months already when she freshened.
Only you can decide whether a Dexter is a right fit for your homestead. Hopefully, by sharing our experiences with them, you’ll be better equipped to make a thoughtful decision.
What was right for our family was to move on and begin raising Jersey cows. With a large, growing family, a desire to make a batch of cheese or two a week, and a passion for homegrown, milk-fed bacon, owning cows that could pull their proverbial weight and contribute the most milk for the limited pasture we have (and hay we purchase) seemed to make the most sense economically. Plus, the ice cream. Enough said.