Dexter cattle

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a horned black cow in field with others
Conservation status
Country of originIreland
Usedual-purpose, meat and milk
Coatusually black
Horn statususually horned, sometimes polled
A red chondrodysplastic-dwarf Dexter cow

The Dexter is an Irish breed of small cattle.[4] It originated in the eighteenth century in County Kerry, in south-western Ireland, and appears to be named after a man named Dexter, who was factor of the estates of Lord Hawarden on Valentia Island. Until the second half of the nineteenth century it was considered a type within the Kerry breed.[5]: 168 [6][7]


Dexter bull

The Dexter breed originated in south-western Ireland, from where it was brought to England in 1882. The breed virtually disappeared in Ireland, but was still maintained as a pure breed in a number of small herds in England and the US.


Dun Dexter heifer
Dexter cattle, Bolton

The Dexter is a small breed with mature cows weighing between 600 and 700 lb and mature bulls weighing about 1,000 lb (450 kg). Considering their small size, their bodies are broad and deep with well-rounded hindquarters. Dexters have three coat colours - black, red, and dun (brown). Dexters should have no white markings except for some minor white markings on the belly/udder behind the navel and some white hairs in the tail switch. While many Dexters are naturally hornless (polled), many have horns that are rather small and thick and grow outward with a forward curve on the male and upward on the female.

Dexters are classified as a small dual-purpose breed, used for milk and beef, but they are often listed as a triple-purpose breed, since they are also used as oxen. Management practices vary by breeder and country. Their versatility is one of their greatest assets, and probably has something to do with the number of countries where Dexter cattle are found, including North America, South Africa, Australia, and much of Europe.

The cows are exceptionally good mothers, hiding their calves almost from birth if they have cover for them to hide. Some produce enough milk to feed two or three calves, and often willingly nurse calves from other cows. They are known for easy calving. This trait, along with the smaller size of the calf, has produced a small but growing market in the United States for Dexter bulls to breed to first-calf heifers among the larger beef breeds to eliminate problems at calving.[citation needed]

Some Dexter cattle carry a gene for chondrodysplasia (a semilethal gene), which is a form of dwarfism that results in shorter legs than unaffected cattle. Chondrodysplasia-affected Dexters are typically 6–8 in shorter in height than unaffected ones. Breeding two chondrodysplasia-affected Dexters together results in a 25% chance that the foetus can abort prematurely. A DNA test is available to test for the chondrodysplasia gene, using tail hairs from the animal.[8]

The aborted foetus is commonly called a bulldog, a stillborn calf that has a bulging head, compressed nose, protruding lower jaw, and swollen tongue, as well as extremely short limbs.[9] The occurrence of bulldog foetuses is higher in calves born with a black coat than a red coat, because black coat colour is more common.[10] Short-legged Dexter cattle are considered to be heterozygous, while bulldog foetuses are homozygous for chondrodysplasia genes.[11]

Dexters can also be affected with pulmonary hypoplasia with anasarca (PHA), which is an incomplete formation of the lungs with accumulation of a serum fluid in various parts of the tissue of the foetus. Unlike chondrodysplasia, which has many physical signs, PHA shows no outward signs and is only detectable through DNA testing. As with Chondrodysplasia, PHA-affected Dexters should not be bred together.[12]

Originally, Dexters were typically horned, but a naturally polled strain was developed in the 1990s.[13]

Dexter cattle have short legs compared to other breeds; increased shortness is displayed from the knee to the fetlock.[9]

Dexter cattle are very hardy, efficient grazers and are able to thrive on poor land.[10]


The breed is suitable for beef or milk production, although individual herd owners often concentrate on growing either one or the other.

Dexters produce a rich milk, relatively high in butterfat (4%) and the quality of the milk overall is similar to that of Jersey cattle. Dexters can reasonably be expected to produce 1.5 to 2.5 gal (7.6 to 9.5 L) per day.[citation needed]

Beef animals in the US are expected to mature in 18–24 months and result in small cuts of high-quality, lean meat, graded US Choice, with little waste. The expected average dress out is 50 to 70%. The beef produced by Dexters is well marbled and tends to be dark.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barbara Rischkowsky, Dafydd Pilling (editors) (2007). List of breeds documented in the Global Databank for Animal Genetic Resources, annex to The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Rome: Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 9789251057629. Archived 23 June 2020.
  2. ^ Breed data sheet: Dexter / Ireland (Cattle). Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed August 2022.
  3. ^ Transboundary breed: Cattle: Dexter. Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed August 2022.
  4. ^ "American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Priority Watch List". Retrieved 14 September 2008.
  5. ^ Valerie Porter, Lawrence Alderson, Stephen J.G. Hall, D. Phillip Sponenberg (2016). Mason's World Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding (sixth edition). Wallingford: CABI. ISBN 9781780647944.
  6. ^ Native Aberdeen Angus. Kenilworth, Warwickshire: Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Accessed August 2022.
  7. ^ Watchlist overview. Kenilworth, Warwickshire: Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Accessed August 2022.
  8. ^ Davidson, Carol. "American Dexter Cattle Association". Archived from the original on 26 January 2013. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  9. ^ a b Crew, F. A. E. (1 January 1923). "The Significance of an Achondroplasia-Like Condition Met with in Cattle". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Containing Papers of a Biological Character. 95 (667): 228–255. Bibcode:1923RSPSB..95..228C. doi:10.1098/rspb.1923.0035. JSTOR 81039.
  10. ^ a b Crew, F. A. E. (1 January 1924). "The Bull-dog Calf: A Contribution to the Study of Achondroplasia". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 17 (Sect Comp Med): 39–58. doi:10.1177/003591572401701511. ISSN 0035-9157. PMC 2201457. PMID 19983950.
  11. ^ Harper, Paw; Latter, Mr; Nicholas, Fw; Cook, Rw; Gill, Pa (1 March 1998). "Chondrodysplasia in Australian Dexter cattle". Australian Veterinary Journal. 76 (3): 199–202. doi:10.1111/j.1751-0813.1998.tb10129.x. ISSN 1751-0813. PMID 9578757. S2CID 20074662.
  12. ^ "PHA (Pulmonary Hypoplasia with Anasarca) Fact Sheet". American Dexter Cattle Association. Archived from the original on 26 January 2013. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  13. ^ Nanci, Gabriella; Millman, Stefani (2009). Dexter Cattle: A Breeders' Notebook Volume One. Bloomington, Indiana, United States: pp. 86–87. ISBN 978-1-4389-8341-7.
  14. ^ Oklahoma State University. "Dexter Cattle". Retrieved 14 September 2008.

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