Who has been with me long enough that they remember Maybelle? She was the first of many Dexter cattle we would own over the years.
We cut our cow-raising teeth on Maybelle. She was a dear ornery cow we bought and jumped in headfirst into the joys of keeping a family cow and 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 cattle being the “Ideal Small Farm Cow” lured us in and we’ve enjoyed owning dairy cattle every day since.
Now, what is the final truth? What are the exact benefits and drawbacks of raising Dexter cattle at home? In order to find out, we decided to share all our experiences with Maybelle in this article. So, with this in mind, let’s start our journey with Dexter cattle.
Our Experience With Dexter Cattle
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 hand milk was the easy part of our crash course in Family Cow 101. 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 three seconds after we bought the cow. Ok, so it was more like a couple of days. The point was, 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 the little heifer she left, we bought a cull cow, Holly, from our new neighbor, an organic dairy farmer.
Pros and Cons of Raising Dexter Cattle
So, two years and several Jerseys later, we no longer own any Dexter cattle at this time and it has left many of you wondering, “Why aren’t you raising Dexter cows anymore?” and “What did you really think of them?”. Well, it’s time to find out all the benefits and drawbacks of raising dexter cattle. However, keep in mind that the following list of pros and cons is what we experienced. So, depending on your steps, your outcome may be different.
Also, 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 it into your decision.
Now, it is time to learn some of the benefits we learned from our experience. Of course, there is a lot to consider when raising Dexter cattle, but these eleven pros are something to keep in mind. So, with no further introduction, let’s find out what we have to gain from this deal!
1. Small Size
Yes, Dexter the cattle is small. Though their size can vary from a large dog all the way up to a small Jersey, they’re still a lot smaller than say a Holstein or Guernsey. That’s a real benefit, especially if you’re 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.
2. 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 Dexter cattle.
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 farmers’ experiences. Maybe their Dexter cows did eat less. I’m just saying that it’s not a guarantee.
Make sure that when you feed your cattle you’re not going by the number of bales per day they “should” be eating. Learn an easy trick to tell if your cow is getting enough to eat and provide them with more food if necessary. Especially if they have poor body conditions too.
The heritage of this heritage breed makes them very cold and hardy. The 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 backside 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 cows. 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 of 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 than 60%.
5. 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 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.
6. Dexter Cattle vs. Jersey Cattle
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 who was 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.
Quick Tip: Keep good homesteading records with the SmartSteader homestead management app! It makes it silly easy for you to see just how much milk your cow (or goat) is actually giving you and lets you record how much it’s costing you per gallon (or pound) of milk! This super-valuable information helps you make better decisions going forward about whether to consider other breeds to meet your needs.
7. Easy Births
It’s said that Dexter cows 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 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.
8. Good Grass-Fed Conversion
As I mentioned before Dexter cows 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.
9. 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 it pretty easily. Especially if you tie her up. (Sorry Maybelle.)
10. Easy to Digest Milk
Much like 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.
11. A2/A2 Milk
Without testing, you never can be sure if your cow is positive for the A2/A2 beta-casein protein that supposedly makes 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 one’s health caused by drinking modern A1 milk are more likely to stem from the cow’s heavily grain-fed diet compared to their grass-fed A2 ancestors. But what do I know?
A2/A2 testing is easy and inexpensive. So if you’re looking for that in your source of milk, testing is the only way to know for sure.
On the other hand, when you plan on raising a Dexter, you should always consider all the drawbacks too. Here are nine of the cons we’ve met during our experience with Dexter cows. We hope they are enough just to create a balanced overall picture.
1. Initial Cost
Because Dexters are more difficult to find (and probably because small-scale farmers are willing to pay for them.) A Dexter cow can be much more expensive to purchase than a conventional breed. It’s that whole supply & demand thing. You can quickly expect to pay about $1500-$2000 for a Dexter cow. (Though I have seen them as low as $800).
2. Large Size
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 is 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!)
3. Breeding Standards Vary
This is a major con, especially if you are looking for a family milk cow. In our area, Dexter cattle breeders are primarily focused on raising grass-fed beef. They are selecting genetics out of their herd to encourage beefiness. This means they have little concern about the structure of udders, teats, and milk yields.
This is going to be very discouraging to first-time dairy farmers. Hand milking a cow that has teats that are too thick, too short, too thin, or too spongy isn’t fun. (Is “spongy” a technical teat description? I don’t know. But if you’ve ever 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.
4. 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 cattle. Dexter cows can give higher yields than other heritage breeds, especially considering their size. But they haven’t been bred to give much more milk than necessary to feed their calves. (Forget using the calf as a relief milker if you want more than ½-1 gallon per 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 cow isn’t the right cow for you.
5. Lower Milk Fat
Though it can vary by breeding, Dexter cows 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 for you, then you might want to take this into consideration. Maybelle, on her best days, gave us about a 1″ cream line. Usually, our Jerseys provide us at least double that, but Candy Creamline gives us a solid 3-4″!
6. Genetic Issues
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 something you must be aware of and watch out for when choosing a cow.
While Dexter cattle 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 for each new lactation to get her to stop kicking. When you’re milking by hand, that’s a whole lot of buckets of precious milk lost to a dirty hoof!
8. Difficult to Find
When 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 of 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.
9. Dries Up Naturally
Dexters naturally will only produce as much milk as their calves need. As a result, 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, 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 a pretty big “con.” We wanted to push back Holly’s breeding schedule a couple of 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 heart signs. So it wasn’t until we got a bull 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. See also our Irish Dexter bull named Augustus.
Suggested Read: 10 Keys to Successful Livestock Farming
Last but not least, remember that only you can decide whether a Dexter is a right fit for your homestead. Because I was keeping good homestead records then, (and now keep awesome ones with the SmartSteader app) I was able to see that Dexter cattle weren’t for us. Hopefully, by sharing our experience, 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.
Ultimately, our experience is the precise reason why we shouldn’t make (or believe) animal generalizations. There are too many other criteria that make animals behave the way they do. And that was evidenced in the Dexter cattle we’ve owned who didn’t really fit the mold.
So, now it’s your time to share your experience and thoughts on this issue. Have you ever raised Dexter cows? How was it? What are the extra pros and cons you’ve faced? Tell us everything, so our readers are prepared when making this call. It is important to be properly informed before deciding to raise an animal, especially one so demanding. Therefore, hit the comments section with your thoughts and we will make sure to respond to you as soon as possible.
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Shanna Halfon says
Thanks again for the lowdown on Dexters (most of it I remember from your email). I'm still hoping to raise them, but also still waiting for our little slice of land. Blessings.
Megan N David Wilson says
I've been following long enough to remember Maybelle. I even miss reading post about her. I was actually think about her the other day because we are currently searching for a dexter ourselves. Thank you for this info! I'm sure it will be very helpful in our search.
Quinn At ReformationAcres says
This was kind of bittersweet to write because it's 2 years ago this week that she died, if you can believe that. Time sure flies. I hope your search is brief and you find a Dexter to love on that is everything you hoped she'd be! Blessings 🙂
Thanks for the pros and cons on dairy cows. I want to have a couple of dairy cows but my husband thinks they will be too big and hard for me to handle. I was considering a Dexter but now I have a different idea about which breed will better suit my requirements.
I have Gulf Coast sheep. They follow me around like my dog and are very gentle. The sheep have a guard donkey that treats the sheep like they are her babies (although they are grown they are not very large). I am hoping gentle cows would fit in with the sheep herd easily.
Hi Shannon, I’m so glad you found this helpful! A small ornery cow is definitely harder to handle than a docile beast of a cow. In fact the biggest one we’ve owned so far, my eyes were level with her backbone and she was the easiest for us to manage. She was the kids favorite. Sadly she had major reproductive difficulties (several multiple births- the last time she miscarried triplets which is virtually unheard of) and she had to go to auction. I think a gentle cow will get along quite nicely with your sheep. Our mostly do pretty well though sometimes the ram and the pretty spotted cow, Candy, will literally but heads. Nothing too rough and it seems like they might be playing. He’s actually the only sheep we have left right now (poor guy!) and he hangs out with the cows all day. Blessings! Quinn
Hello… I’m new to the homesteading game. (So new in fact that I haven’t even started. I’m still living in a college dorm, but I LOVE to plan the future. lol and homesteading is one of those things working into my plans.) I was wondering if you have any experience, or know of anyone who keeps a small mixed herd: dairy and beef cattle together. The more I read, the more I want to own a small herd, one bull (a beef breed) two cows for beef and two for dairy. What I’ve been thinking is Dexters for the beef side of things and then Jerseys for dairy. Does this sound like an alright set up? The beef and dairy will be for myself and family members (such as my mom- I want to take care of her so she can work less).
Bless you Hannah for thinking ahead to care for your family! I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t be able to run dairy & beef together. We’ve never tried it ourselves, but I think your plan sounds awesome. We have a Jersey x Shorthorn steer that we’ll be butchering this winter and after having had 3 full Jersey heifers this year are looking forward considering our beef options for the future and will most likely be purchasing a beef steer that will run with our dairy girls. I hope that your homesteading dreams will be realized thanks to you diligence & careful planning!
Just A Girl says
Currently there is only one registered family in the United States, that shows Dexter cattle for dairy. By registered I mean through a Dexter cattle registry. Their webpage isn’t up to date, so I would check out their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/friskyfriendsfarms
They raise Dexters, for both beef and dairy; dairy goats; Jersey and Ayrshire cattle; poultry; pigs; three miniature horses and a Quarter Horse; five dogs; and some barn cats.
I don’t believe I made claims about how many people show Dexters. They can be hard to find even with the links you shared. It’s hard enough for some of us to scrape up the cash to get a cow for our homestead let alone drive across the country and arrange travel to pick them up. Fact is, other breeds are easier to find.
Anyway, I fully admit throughout the post that I’m simply sharing *my experience* as an owner & homesteader. Not farmer or breeder. In the post I link to other resources where a lifelong farmers have many of the same opinions including one who raised Kerry cattle (Dexter cousins, if you will.)
Our family, and most of the people whose internet circles I run in, are interested in beef that can grow and finish well solely on grass without any grain inputs so that there are increased nutritional benefits in the beef, such as CLA’s which significantly decrease with every pound of grain you ration. I maintain that it is fair to say this might not be the best cow for those on small acreages where every blade of grass conversion counts.
Finally, I completely agree that buying the bull is a decision that needs much consideration and is not necessarily wise for homesteaders. Though we technically owned the bull, we had him no longer than any of the 4 bulls we’ve rented since. The only foolishness in that decision was the price we had to pay but with no other options for getting our dairy cow bred it was what we had to do.
Again, I’m only sharing our experience and what was the right decision for our family. I clearly listed the numerous pros to Dexter ownership. There are cons with every breed of livestock. You have to make the best decision for yourself and I hope that I’ve helped folks see all sides more clearly. I apologize that I seem to have ruffled your feathers in the process.
Anna Dockendorf-Lauer says
Our dexter girls are a bit on the fiesty side but our steer and bull are like big teddy bears! It's going to be a sad day when the steer has to go.
Tessa Zundel says
Thank you so much for that info! We have someone in our general area who crosses Dexters and Jerseys and I'm thinking that might be the perfect combo for us. I do have goats but I prefer cow milk for cheese making and "creamy" things. I'm getting kind of weary of goats, too. They're just too hard to fence! 🙂
Reformation Acres says
I look out at my neighbor in front of us and see all the shenanigans his goats get into and it makes me love my cows. Jersey Dexter crosses sound perfect to me! You're going to love having a cow 🙂
I read your article with interest as I own Dexter cattle. I was pleasantly surprised to find that you were quite honest in your assessment and by no means disparaged the breed. Your assessment is spot on and I appreciate your forthrightness. No one should purchase any livestock without a careful assessment of their goals and needs.
Well thank you Raylene! This was exactly what my goal was instead of just advocating for one breed over another. One breed meets one family’s needs, another breed another family. A cow is a tremendous commitment and for an animal that thrives on routine, it’s a shame when they have to move from farm to farm because of misinformation and poor choices.
Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m looking at dual-purpose breeds for the “someday” when my family can move out into the country and Dexters are one possibility. Very interesting that they don’t take well with AI breeding.
I like the idea of a Jersey-Dexter cross. I’ve always liked Jerseys but their tendency to get milk fever is a concern. Did a quick Google search and found that the cross is usually good but not immune to milk fever. There is actually a move to create a new miniature breed called the Belmont, from this cross.
bill smith says
Dexter’s show up here and there in auctions in W. Oregon. Steers, Bulls, Heifers. I suppose they are probably bread for beef. They go for really cheap, If 400 lb angus calves are going for 1.30 a pound they will bring .50. You could buy a Jersey heifer almost ready to breed for $300 or less some days. Or better yet, pick up a day old Jersey heifer for 5 bucks or even less some days and bottle feed her…that should made for a gentle homestead cow you can love for many years. Meat buyers do not want much to do with Jerseys. They dress poorly, grain doesn’t do much to fill them out or marble them Carcass size is to small for the processors on cull cows. Lots of options for really cheap meat at auctions if you are willing to butcher yourself
SUE COBART says
I read this blog briefly and wasnt impressed. Maybe you should tell others its a great idea to butcher their own animals with no experience. And you said you miss your cow.I think thats what you said…someone said it….one of the most useless and boring bios I have ever come across. Amateurs need to know their limits…otherwise they would be professionals. This blog give alot of wrong information and we are hoping that not many people take your advice otherwise many animals will be suffering. That would be a shame.
Modern Dairy Machines says
Everyone will not be much experienced before taking a ideal a cow farm. This article gives a practical guidance in managing them, understanding the pros and cons. A complete guide for not only Dexter cows, but also for other breeds!