Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Are Dexters a Fad?

A few days ago a question was raised on a post over at Homesteading Today. The question was, "How long will they last?" The "they" was referring to dairy cows. Of course depending on whether or not it is a commercial operation or a home cow the time can vary from a few lactations to a quite a few years. But, when the idea of Dexters lasting a long time was brought up the responses weren't all daisies and roses. And I admit that I threw my two cents into the fray in defense of Dexters. Not that they were a better breed, but that they were an option for the small land holder looking for a dual purpose cow. You can read the thread and my comments by clicking on the link above.

One statement that was brought up is that the Dexter bred shows all the signs of being another "fad" breed. That one really got me going, because I know that from a historical standpoint they have been around for quite awhile (going back to their origins in Ireland) and the reason for their longevity has a lot to do with their usefulness. Just because their numbers have dropped off over time does not mean that they are not a viable option in certain situations it more than likely means that they didn't fit the industrial model of agriculture. They have even been in Iowa for almost a hundred years now! But, continuing the argument wasn't the reason I brought it up today...

The reason I bring it up today is because I thought about the question, "what if they really are a fad?" I know this is something I have thought about at different times, in fact I even blogged about it once before. What if the bottom of the market falls out in the Dexter world? What happens when nobody wants to buy my extra heifers or older cows? Am I going to end up with some high priced "lawn ornaments" as one poster mentioned on Homesteading Today?

Well, I think I have come to a conclusion and I'm going to run with it ... WHO CARES! I am not going to throw myself into the seedstock business. Of course I will sell some cows or heifers from time to time and maybe even some bulls if I have a notion, but the reason I chose to go with the Dexter breed is because I wanted to produce beef that I could direct market. And I believed and still believe the Dexter suits my needs the best.

After everything is all said and done on our new land we will probably have around 23 acres of pasture. You could not run a very big herd of commercial cattle on that acreage, but because of the size and forage conversion abilities of Dexters we can run a few more head. Also, from everything I have read, heard, and experienced these Dexters are great foragers and good gainers on pasture ... of course that speaks to their heritage as a small cottage or farm cow in Ireland.

But, most importantly I have tasted and I have read great things about their meat and their ability to finish on grass. And that is the main reason I went with Dexters, because I want people to eat them! Of course there are the health benefits of eating grassfed beef, there are many articles and books to point that out. But, how about this for a healthy marketing angle ... Dexters are smaller, so their portions are going to be smaller. Portion control is one of the many buzz words in the health and dieting community today, so I can market my beef in a few ways.

First of all it will be grassfed. You are what you eat is the saying ... cows eat grass, so they are grass ... we eat cows, so we are grass ... grass is a lot like salad and my teachers told me salad is good for me! Secondly, I can tout the benefits of being able to buy the whole steer, not just a half or a quarter. That way you will get all of the cuts instead of just 1/2 or 1/4. It is almost the ultimate freezer beef in my opinion. Third, there is the portion control angle. You can still have your steak, but you don't have to have one the size of your dinner plate (and you probably shouldn't no matter how it was raised). And finally, I can market the fact that Dexters are a heritage breed that deserves to be maintained for so many reasons (I don't want to list them now).

I don't think Dexters are a fad that will come and go. I also don't believe they will become a commercial mainstay. But, I do believe they are a great option for our farm and many other farms like ours. I also believe they are a great choice for families freezers all around me ... and I will be working to convince them of that!

If they are a fad ... WHO CARES ... I have a plan. But, they are not a fad :)


Rich said...

As long as you can create a market for your product that offers a profit, I don't see how anything can be a fad. The key is creating, recognizing, and maintaining the market.

The only way I can see that a person can get into trouble with something like Dexters is planning to sell every single calf at a grossly inflated registered animal price. But that doesn't mean that the market for registered stock should be completely disregarded though.

I thought one of the advantages of Dexters was their triple purpose uses as dairy, beef, and draft animals. If people want a smaller dairy cow, wouldn't a Dexter be a good candidate? Wouldn't a "lawn ornament" that could pull a small cart or plow be desirable to some customers? It would be easier to find or create those markets with Dexter cattle.

Don't forget that when the first British cattle were introduced into the U.S., most people said that they were just "fads".

Yeoman said...

The answer to your titled question would depend on what "fad" is supposed to mean.

They're are fad livestock. But they generally fit into the pasture pet variety. I've seen a few herds of Dutch Belted around here that would meet this criteria. A few might be sold for meat, but by and large the owners of them like they way they look, and keep them for that purpose. They're not really farming. They're sort of gigantic pot bellied Vietnamese pigs of the range, so to speak.

I might even include the Charolais in one rich dudes herd around here, but not those in a working stockman's herd. The difference is the purpose. If somebody keeps them because they look cool, and thats based on everyone else thinking that they look cool, and they're kept to look cool, it speaks of fadism. If they're kept because I like the breed for some reason, and I'm working the herd, that isn't.

They're are trends within livestock that are a bit different. Out here the current trend remains black cattle. They're more marketable. Is that a fad? Probably not, as we keep black cattle as they sell better. If red cattle sold better tomorrow, I'd go to red.

You are keeping Dexters as you like their qualities. That doesn't speak to an element of fadism. Whether it's a wise long term strategy (and I'm not opining on that, as I have no idea) is another matter. But it isn't a fad based decision.

And, you note an important element. If I'm going to have 400 head of cattle, I better have cattle that are commercially marketable. If I'm going to have much, much fewer, I better be looking at my market another way.

Having said all that, one thing I would note as a fad is the really odd restaurant habit of identifying beef by breed, even though they know nothing about what they're talking about. We've all seen the "100% Angus Beef Burger" ads, for example. Coming out of Mass Produced Burger Barn, or whatever, it could be "100% Corriente" and most people couldn't tell the difference. I do think that sort of fast food restaurant, or even general restaurant, marketing habit is some sort of odd fad.

Yeoman said...


Bad typo.

That first line should read:

"There are fad livestock"

Not, "They're are fad livestock"

Big difference.

I've never heard of a Dexter fad, and I've never seen a Dexter, so I certainly do not mean to suggest they're a fad.


Walter Jeffries said...

Interesting. Dexters and Highlands are the two cattle we're thinking about. Still years away probably. Both are smaller. I feel intimidated by the bigger breeds. I am getting used to working with larger animals as we now have sows and boars in the 600 lb to 1,400 lb range. I was shocked when we 'taped' our big boar. I've known him since he was a wee-wee-wee piglet of three pounds.

As to fad or not, I don't think it matters. What matters is does the animal do what you need it to do on your farmstead. That is the real question.

mhcs said...

Just because it's popular doesn't mean it's bad- it just means there might be a lot of other people who like it for the wrong reasons. : )

The Dexter was developed as a small, easy-keepin', triple-purpose cow for a reason. That's what people needed. And if it just so happens that you have the same needs as the folks who created the Dexter, then Dexters are probably a good choice for you regardless of what other yahoos think they make cute lawn ornaments.

Good example of a fad: alpacas. (There are people down here in Florida who raise them and we get them here at our vet hospital all summer because of heat stroke... >:-{ But that's another story.) They're a total pyramid scheme at the moment. But, the point remains that they do give great wool. My mom loves to spin yarn, and I think when we've got the acreage I may get an alpaca or two for her to play with. But, that doesn't mean I have to lay out $200,000 for a stud-quality male. I'm probably getting a couple el-cheapo geldings of boring color instead. : )

Steven said...

I just totally got had over at Sugar Mountain Farm's blog. Thanks Walter!

Steven said...

The last few years I have shown horses at 2 different county fairs in IL. Well, I think this is the end of that: "A Livestock Premises Identification number will be required for exhibition at all 2008 county, state, 4-H and FFA fairs in Illinois."

Ernie said...

I dont think that Dexters are a fad. I believe you use what you want. Dexter are one of 2 breeds that I have been researching.

The other is the Galloway. I like the Galloway for their calving-ease, hybrid vigor, durability, maternal efficiency, carcass quality and feed efficiency.

I think most of the above could also be said of the Dexter.

I think the biggest difference in my opion between these breeds compared to the "commercial breeds" is that the Galloway and Dexter are more appropriate for grassfed beef production. They are not your ordinary sale barn cattle.

Guess the biggest point is raise what you like.


Ethan Book said...

Great thoughts everyone. Thanks for adding to the discussion and bringing out a few points I missed!

Walter - From my little bit of experience the Dexters have been great and I have seen and experienced first hand why I think they are here to stay for small scale grass farms. Also, in the future I really want to take advantage of their triple purpose abilities, but I have to wait until we are fully prepared!

Yeoman - You are so right about the marketing of beef by name at various places. I do admit that I'm a little jealous though because I think the Dexter Associations should be working to promote like that ... maybe they could learn something from the Angus folks. Although I do know not everyone is happy with the Angus association.

Again, great thoughts by all. The comments after the post are always so much better than the posts themselves :)

Anonymous said...

Glad someone brought up Alpacas. Ostriches, emus, llamas and so forth have all been very inflated and when the bubble popped it all came tumbling the crash was thunderous. 30k for a breeding pair of Ostriches now they are free. The big thing to watch for is the value of a product on the consumable level. 200k for an alpaca has no chance of producing 200k worth of yarn. If the current value of an animal is only based on selling progeny to other people who will do the same thing and to use the animals for the end product would result in a huge loss. You may have found a fad.

Dexters i would say are fairly safe. If it all breaks loose they are still cows, steaks and leather. Commodity prices would hold the floor up. With cattle there are fads ie Piedmontese in the 90's. When a fad hits you see one scary thing happen. Every bull calf born with at least one testicle is a herd sire. We also saw this when the black fad hit. I do see a lot of steer quality bulls for sale in the Dexter world. Don't get barn blind look for the not as good ones and castrate them even if they have papers.

mhcs said...

Here's another good way to tell if there's a speculation bubble (I like "speculation bubble" a lot better than fad- fads can still pan out. : ) Idiots are buyin' 'em. My favorite example, once again, alpacas.

The thing about a speculation bubble-priced animal is that real farmers can't afford it. Even a "cheap" alpaca is $1,000, which doesn't appeal to the demographic that has ever made a living running livestock. That leaves rich retirees looking for a "second career," meaning emotional attachment to the idea coupled with lots of cash.

The result is we have lots of folks down here in Florida trying to raise alpacas. Dude! Just because YOU want to retire in Florida does not make it a good place for alpacas. They're from the Andes. They grow wool. Connect the dots, and get into something you can actually do in Florida like trying to breed racehorses that never quite make it to champion, so they have to be cattletrained down to Mexico to be turned into dog food because it's no longer legal to slaughter horses here.

...Sorry... been one of those days here at the vet hospital. : )

mhcs said...

By the way, speaking of NOT a fad, they're going to reprint Gene Logsdon's Small-Scale Grain Raising! Yayyy!!

Right from the horse's mouth at organictobe.org. (Scroll down to Gene's post from March 31.)

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