Thursday, March 31, 2011

Are Dexters the Right Breed for Me?

A few posts ago when I was writing my chapter review for Tim Young's book, "The Accidental Farmers," I mentioned in passing that I was questioning whether or not the Dexter breed was for me. It's something I've been thinking about lately and just this morning someone posted a comment asking why I was thinking that way. So, I figured it was time for me to try and articulate some of my thoughts on the subject. First of all let me say that at this point I'm still keeping the Dexters and trying to work with them, but knowing what I know now if I was starting over with the same goals in mind I'm not sure that I would go with the Dexters.

I don't remember exactly which book it was, although I'm pretty sure it was by Joel Salatin, but early on I remember reading that "seed stock" anything was not a good idea. What that meant was that going with pure breed animals for meat sales based farm probably wasn't a good idea. I tried to think my way around that by telling myself that I wasn't really interested in selling seed stock, so the ability to sell a heifer every now and then was just a bonus. I loved the historical aspect of the Dexter, I loved the small size, and I loved what I read about their qualities as a historical tri-purpose breed (meat, milk, and draft animals).

Here is my totally uneducated thinking of why I may not be sold on them for my farm right now ... The Dexters are listed as a recovering breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and at one time their numbers here in the U.S. were pretty low. I think as they began to recover some marginal animals were kept for breeding stock (both cows and in my opinion especially bulls) that helped grow the numbers within the breed, but didn't really emphasize the strongest qualities of the breed. On top of that I'm not sure there is a very large number of people raising Dexters in the same type of all grass and no antibiotic system that I'm using right now.

That's all to say that while I still think Dexters are a great breed and that they would work in many situations (including mine) they may not work perfectly in my system. Or more specifically the particular Dexters I have weren't the perfect ones for me. When I decided on Dexters over three years ago what I was doing was choosing a breed based on their general historical background. What I should have been doing is choosing cows (not a breed) based on how I want to raise them. I honestly believe I would have been better served spending the money to get cows from a rotationally grazed farm that was grass based only. This may have meant I bought Dexters or it may have meant I bought cows ... just great cows ...

I think Dexters can still work and I hope to make them work on the farm. Above all I still think they are perfect breed for the small land holder because of their size and relatively calm disposition (although there are exceptions. I would like to add a couple other cows at some time though ... just to see ...


Steven said...

As you probably know we abandoned registered Dexters pretty quickly and bought a Lowline Angus bull to cross to the Dexters that we had. The crosses so far have been nice and thrifty. We are also leaning towards a little larger cattle and now have 3 cows that are larger than Dexters. We have several Dexter cows that do really well in our system and several have NOT done well without worming/grain/etc. If money was no object I would probably go with Pharo Cattle Co. animals .... I also do love the Lowline but you'd have a hard time finding many that come from a system like ours. Pharo really puts pressure on his herd and keeps only the ones that dow well with no inputs.

Rich said...

Have you saved any heifers for replacements yet?

I'm not sure if I read it somewhere or if it something that I dreamt up, but calves are somewhat "plastic" and will adapt to the environment they are exposed to early in life. And, when replacement heifers are "home-grown" they are more likely to thrive as cows since they are used to the forage, management, etc.

Just from personal observation, it seems like the heifers I have kept for replacements are better than the cows they have came from (although the bull does play a big role).

Anonymous said...

marian at says:

Ethan, I know when I started with Dexters, some of my stock was inferior. Now I know alot better what I'm doing and we only keep the best as breeding stock. As the numbers of Dexters have grown in this country, the quality overall I believe has also improved as better animals are more common.

We have a friend who decided the Dexters didn't grow fast enough (with the exception of our Klondike's calves) and decided to get into Belties instead.
The next summer he lost a bunch of the latter in the heat wave we had! So he was glad he hadn't sold all his Dexter cows. He's crossing them with a Lowline bull because he is selling meat. But the solid, well-pedigreed fullblood Dexter stock are still valuable and command higher prices than you can usually get for your critters otherwise.

As the economy worsens (and it will), the value of pedigreed stock will doubtless change. But the MILKablility of the Dexters is going to be of increasing importance, I believe. The homestead cow is going to be valuable once again! Also, the Dexters are small and can get by on more marginal forage than many breeds. Of course they can serve as oxen as well.

Having a small, gentle, triple-purpose breed that is exceptionally hardy and finishes well on grass is going to be important, and Dexters fill the bill.

Rich said...

More and more, I am drawn to a Holistic way of thinking and farming.

Holistically speaking (if I have it right), you have to define your goals and figure out if you are moving towards those goals.

Is your goal to raise grass-fed beef?

Is your goal to raise registered cattle?

To raise small dairy cattle to sell to homesteaders?

To raise cattle that aren't the type that supposedly can't deal with heat stress?

Is your goal to raise cattle that might sell at a premium if the economy worsens?

Define your goals, figure out how to move towards those goals, and don't be afraid or hesitant to admit mistakes. Correcting mistakes or missteps is sometimes the only way to reach your goals.

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