It’s 5 o’clock on a June morning. The eastern horizon is bright, meadowlarks are in full voice, and the robins are happily hopping. I walk into the barn, call “Good morning!” to the herd, and start my morning chores.
Our herd consists of seven purebred Irish Dexter cattle that provide our homestead with milk, meat and a lot of fun.
Ruby and Jet, our milking cows, line up to go into the milking stall. Ruby, as boss cow, is first; she eats her morning grain as I sit down on the milking crate and squeeze out the foamy fluid.
The sun starts to rise, slanting beams of crimson light into the open barn door, and the calves bawl with hunger. When both cows are milked dry, I release the calves and watch them dive for their mothers’ udders, instinctively butting to release more milk and sucking with great satisfaction.
This is the start of my day. In the winter I don’t milk until around 7:30 in the morning – again, when it’s dawn – but whatever the season, Dexters add to our self-sufficiency and satisfaction as small landowners.
Dexter cattle are an Irish breed, developed to thrive on scrubby pasture. Sometimes referred to as the Irish “house cow,” they have provided both milk and meat to single-family households since at least the mid-1700s. The first Dexters were brought to America between 1905 and 1915. Today, there are more than 500 breeders in the United States and Canada who enjoy these chest-high animals as a dual-purpose breed.
Dexters are hardy and well-adapted to many different climates. They thrive from northern Canada to the Mohave Desert, from Florida to Hawaii. These diminutive delights have few calving difficulties and generally have a docile disposition. Even the bulls are easily handled. Some folks find them less intimidating than larger breeds.
Dexters have horns, though polled animals are available. Most Dexter cattle are black; however, dun and red hide colors are increasing in popularity.
Dexters are not miniature cattle. Personally, I think it would be a stretch to call anything that weighs 700 pounds “miniature.” However, they are the smallest naturally occurring (non-dwarf) cattle currently available. Cows range from 36 to 42 inches in height and can weigh up to 750 pounds. Bulls range from 38 to 44 inches tall and can weigh up to 1,000 pounds.
Dexter cattle eat about 12 to 15 pounds of hay per day, which is about half the ration of a typical large breed.
Additionally, Dexters provide excellent, delicious meat. Grass-fed Dexter steers dress out at about 55 percent of their live weight. Since Dexters are small-boned, they have a relatively high meat-to-bone ratio compared with some breeds.
When milked twice a day, a Dexter cow at the height of lactation can produce 1 1/2 to 3 gallons of milk. Since I milk only once a day, I get about 3/4 gallon of milk per cow, and the calves get the rest. I find that this milk volume is a more manageable quantity than the 6 to 8 (or more) gallons per day expected from a standard dairy breed, such as Holstein.
Those are all the dry facts and figures for Dexters. What doesn’t come across in this data is the sheer enjoyment we get from our animals.
I gain immense satisfaction from looking over our pasture and watching seven black heads down, grazing happily. Or observing the animals, content under the trees, relaxed and endlessly chewing their cuds.
When I call across the pasture in the evening, seven black heads pop up, and the animals either hightail or amble to the gate to get into the barnyard. In bad weather, it’s nice to let the animals into the barn, sweet with fresh hay on the floor and with a bit of grain as a treat for the night, where they’ll be dry and comfortable. The calves trot into the calf pen for the night, as they’ve been trained, so that the cows will have milk for me in the morning.
After the barn cat gets her share of the milk, I return to the house to strain and chill that life-giving liquid and skim the cream from yesterday’s yield. Maybe today I’ll make a batch of mozzarella cheese. No, I’ll make yogurt instead, although since it’s a hot day perhaps I’ll make ice cream. What a delicious dilemma.
We butchered our steer last fall, so I reach into the freezer to pull out a roast and put it in the slow cooker for dinner. Never – and I mean never – have we had better beef than this from our own organically raised and humanely slaughtered steers.
Because the animals are in the barn at night, I have mounds of fresh manure mixed with hay that I can compost. Fresh composted manure is heaped on the garden in the fall and allowed to leach over the winter. Compost is also added in the spring, and we work the entire rich mixture into the soil to produce an excellent garden.
The Dexters help maintain our 40 acres by keeping the grass cropped down. We rotate them among the pastures to maximize their feed and to minimize our fire danger from tall grasses. They also keep our wooded areas clipped and tidy.
Dexter cattle are ideal for the small landowner whose acreage may not be suited to the higher consumption demands of larger breeds. Gentle and intelligent, our Dexters help us complete our “circle of life.” Not only do they add variety to our diet by supplying meat and dairy products, but, indirectly, they also improve our diet by fertilizing the garden. They add joy to our lives with the sheer fun of watching calves gamboling at their mothers’ sides. They teach the facts of life to our young daughters through breeding and birthing cycles. Dexter cattle add balance, harmony and sustainability to our existence.
If you’re interested in finding Dexter cattle near you, contact the Purebred Dexter Cattle Association of North America (PDCA) by writing them at 25979 Hwy. EE, Prairie Home, MO 65068, calling (660) 841-9502, or visiting the Web site, www.PurebredDexterCattle.org.
Patrice Lewis edits the PDCA newsletter and is co-founder of Don Lewis Designs (www.DonLewisDesigns.com). The Lewises live on 40 acres in northern Idaho with their two home-schooled children, assorted livestock and a shop that overflows into the house with depressing regularity.