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Dexter Cattle discussion

 
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Brett had questions about calving ease, optimum time to breed heifers and when young bulls reach breeding age.

Calving issues are not a problem in the Dexter breed if bred to a Dexter bull. Typical birthweight is between 35-45 lbs. I can’t guarantee a Dexter cow wouldn’t have difficulty calving if bred to a bull of another larger cattle breed. If you plan on tagging the calf and castrating if a bull, you better do it in the first 24-48 hrs. After that, Dexter calves can outrun a deer.

Dexter cattle are very fertile and reach puberty at a young age. Heifers can begin cycling at 14 months. Bulls can breed as early as 14-15 months. There are individuals in the breed that reach puberty earlier and some later. I have observed some interesting behavior with young bulls in my herd with mature cows coming into heat. The young bulls(under a year old)try to mount but the cow will run away from them, turn around and head butt them and other avoidance behavior. She will only let the mature herd bull service her.

When is the optimum time to breed Dexter heifers? This is a function of age and body condition. You don’t want to breed a heifer too young because she is still growing. Breeding one too young puts a lot of stress and nutritional demands on her because she is still growing and now growing a calf. I wait until my heifers are 20-24 months and in good body condition before allowing them to be bred.
 
Ron Metz
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Denny had a question about whether horned Dexters were heartier.

I don’t believe there is any scientific evidence to show horned Dexters are heartier than polled. However, the original Dexter cattle were all horned. There are some Dexter breeders who claim the polled gene has always existed in the breed however there is no scientific or historical evidence to prove that is true. The polled gene entered the breed post WWII when England opened their herd book and allowed cross breeding in a breeding up program to increase Dexter numbers to replenish those decimated by the war. Cattle used in this breeding up included dairy cattle(ie Jersey)as well as other beef breeds(ie Angus). Thus the polled gene was introduced into the Dexter gene pool. After a period of time, the Dexter herd book in England was closed and breeding up was no longer allowed. All polled Dexters in the United States can be traced to only one polled English imported sire named Saltaire Platinum. Many claim Platinum was a natural genetic mutation, however given the open English herdbook and breeding up program post WWII, that claim is extremely unlikely. Regardless, the Dexter breed now has both horned and polled cattle.
Personally I prefer the horned Dexters for two reasons. First, they are majestic looking. Second and more of a practical reason, we have an abundance of coyotes. Horned Dexters are better equipped to protect their calves.
 
Ron Metz
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Gray had a question about feeding grain to a Dexter to increase marbling.

It is a fact grass finishing takes longer than grain finishing. The reason is grain provides an abundance of higher energy feed in a short period of time(60-90 days)which in turn is deposited as “finish”in a maturing steer as fat cover, kidney, pelvic,heart fat as well as intramuscular marbling. The down side....grain is an unnatural diet for cattle and fat from grain finishing is not as healthy for humans as fat from grass finishing. The short answer is yes you can grain feed your Dexters and it will increase the fat content of the beef. There is another component to types of deposited fat in cattle and that is a genetic one. Some cattle breeds and some individuals within cattle breeds “finish” better than others. Overall, Dexters produce excellent beef. If you are grass finishing your Dexters, be sure and let them go longer because it does take longer.
 
Ron Metz
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Michelle has several questions...

First question was do Dexter udders drag the ground when full? I guess the best way to answer this is any cow with a broken down, poorly suspended udder can run the risk of hanging so low it drags the ground. The most likely candidate for this condition would be a worn out old dairy cow. I will say there is a small percentage of cows within the Dexter breed that have undesirable udders, however I have never seen one drag the ground.

Next question concerned teat size. Teat size and placement is more of a function of genetics. Poor udders seem to go hand in hand with one or more poorly shaped and/or poorly placed teats.

How much milk can you expect daily if calf sharing? Believe it or not there were some very large Dexter dairies in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. The quality of the milk is wonderful as evidenced by how fast Dexter calves grow. As I mentioned earlier, butterfat content of Dexter milk is comparable to that of Jersey milk. Milk volume when calf sharing depends on the cow and the age of the cow. First calf heifers tend to give less volume than older cows. If you keep chickens, pullets lay smaller eggs when they begin laying than older hens. So depending on the age and quality of the Dexter, I would say milk yield on a calf sharing basis could range from a quart a day on up. I know of one person that was getting a gallon plus a quart every day sharing with the calf.

Can a Dexter bull impregnate a Jersey cow? Sure can! Matter of fact the Dexter/Jersey cross is popular with many homesteaders as a family milk cow option.

Are Dexter’s indiscriminate grazers? I would say Dexters are much less selective grazers than a lot of other breeds of cattle. I’ve seen mine eat all kinds of weeds, brush, tree leaves as well as all the grasses on our place. They have well balanced appetites.

What are they like in the heat? From my own experience they handle heat surprisingly well. Other than my dun bull, I have an all black herd. This past summer we had weeks that were in the high 90’s to a peak of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. They did fine and more often than not they would be out grazing. Keep plenty of water available and provide reasonable shade ie nice to have a few trees in the pasture for them to get under during the hottest part of the day. Another consideration is humidity. We are in a low humidity climate(usually less than 20% during summer). I’m sure that is a helpful factor.

What are the bulls like, beef or dairy demeanor? My rule of thumb is never trust or turn your back on any bull. Learn the bull threat/aggression display behavior and always provide yourself an escape route when in the presence of a bull. You never know when your puppy dog gentle bull might wake up on the wrong side of the pasture and decide that day you are a threat or competition.

Do they do snow? When the weather starts to turn cold, they grow a thick coat. We don’t get snow very often here but we do get cold and high winds. The times it has snowed here, mine did fine however we rarely get feet of snow. I still provide a large windbreak for them to get behind if they get uncomfortable. Maybe someone from the northern regions can answer this in more detail.

How are they to handle if moving daily in a rotational grazing system? Dexters are smart. I rotational graze whenever possible. They learn quickly when the electric fence is moving to another grazing cell they will be getting fresh grass. All I do is open the electric wire gate and they move themselves. In other situations when I have to move my cows all I need to do is shake a bucket with some range cubes, whistle and here they come.

Yes Dexter milk is great for making cheese. We have a board member who had a small Dexter dairy and made artisan cheeses with the milk. If you would like to talk to her about cheesemaking with Dexter milk, pm me and I’ll forward her contact info.

Hope this helped and let me know if you have any other questions.

 
Ron Metz
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Beth asked if it would be economical to try and raise a Dexter steer on a 1/2 acre?

Beth, I would say you would have to have at least an acre and I would divide it in half rotating the steer between the two grazing cells in order to give each half a rest to recover. For that idea to work, you would also have to be in an area that receives regular rainfall for your grass to recover and have continuous growth. In winter, you would be buying hay. So being economical for you to do this would be questionable.

Perhaps you have a family member or friend that has more land or access to more land. Maybe they would be open to the idea of an arrangement where you graze their land in exchange for a portion of the beef. During the winter months you could share the cost of hay. After this covid mess exposing the weaknesses in our food supply chain, many more people are open to the idea of raising their own food including beef.

 
Ron Metz
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There was some discussion regarding age vs size vs weight of Dexter steers at optimum slaughter time. This is a subject that varies with different bloodlines and nutritional considerations. Also you need to take into consideration some people raise Dexters that carry the chondrodysplasia(Chondro) gene. These Dexters have normal size bodies but very short legs. As far as weight goes, Dexters are the smallest cattle breed in the world not classified as a miniature. Dexters are not a miniature breed. A typical Dexter cow is going to weigh between 650-850 lbs or so, a bull 850-1100 or so. Don’t focus on size as an indicator of time to harvest. Rather look for indicators the animal is mature and finished such as fullness in the brisket area, fullness along the top line and cover over the ribs. Also keep in mind grass fed animals take longer to finish than grain fed and usually produce a leaner carcass than grain fed. I have talked to owners who harvest their Dexters at 24 months, others wait until 30 months. Again grass fed vs grain fed can affect that time. Genetics also has a an affect on both feed conversion, carcass quality and age at which the animal is ready to harvest. I would encourage everyone to have the carcasses of the animals they harvest graded then compare those results to the bloodlines of the Dexters they are breeding. If your breeding program consistently produces very lean, low grading carcasses you should probably bring in some new genetics to improve what you are producing. Nutrition also plays an important role in growth and finishing. If you are grass finishing but consistently producing poor quality carcasses maybe you need to improve the types of grasses in your pastures. Maybe have your soils tested and amended with fertilizers. I don’t raise cattle, I manage and raise grass to grow cattle.
 
pollinator
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Ron, thank you for all the time you are putting into this thread!


I am looking at getting some cattle in a year or two. I will be grazing them, haylage in the winter. Have around 15 acres of rough pasture, and a bunch of brush; more pasture to be created as time allows.

I like the idea of smaller cattle, should help with my soggy pacific northwest terrain, and be an advantage for direct marketing.

I am concerned about the slow maturing aspect, though. The cattle people I know in my area are mostly running Herefords or red/black angus, and everyone aims to calve in late winter/early spring, and butcher late fall/early winter, around 18-21 months.

With our wet winters, most pasture isn't able to handle winter grazing. Mine certainly can't. A lot of it has standing water for extended periods, between freezes.

Cattle are either kept on drier ground or in a barn; in my case, it will be barn, as I haven't enough well-drained land for winter pasture.

Thus, there will be a significant bump in cost of facilities, to overwinter steers twice instead of once..

Any thoughts?
 
pollinator
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I think you are looking at two winters - they are just slow.  If you want something in less than two winters that is also grass fed you might consider AGH pigs ! I am...

An advantage of a barn for wintering ... you can use this as both a chance to tame up the cows (mine become almost completely tame after two days in the barn yard, and then slowly transition during the spring and summer to not wanting to be touched while in the pastures), and also to have them fertilize a thick bed of wood chips.  Also, if in a barn they eat a LOT less than if out in the wet and cold.

And yes - Ron, thanks for that dump of info.  Great material.  It would help if you could edit your profile to at least show which region you are in.
 
Ron Metz
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As with any breed of cattle, some bloodlines are better than others. When getting into cattle, my advice to new owners is buy the best genetics you can afford to buy at the time then make improvements from there through  the sires you use and any future replacement females you keep or buy. Do a lot of research, talk to established breeders. Something new the PDCA will be doing in the near future is establishing a mentor program for new people interested in the Dexter breed. Learn the traits of the Dexter breed and what a good Dexter is supposed to look like as well weaknesses in the breed to stay away from. Buying horned or polled is a personal preference based on your needs and comfort level. However always keep in mind a polled cow/bull can inflict an incredible amount of damage to a person. I advise people to place temperament high on the priority list of traits to look for. Learn good animal husbandry practices and bovine behavior. Never assume cattle to be pets. They weigh hundreds of pounds and can inflict serious harm whether intentional or unintentional.

On the problem with wet ground during winter months, are there any drainage options on your farm. In South Dakota, it is a common practice to install drainage systems in their fields using Perforated HDPE pipe. I believe they call it tiling. It diverts otherwise excess standing water off their land.
 
Ron Metz
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For those interested in milking their Dexters, During our PDCA board meeting last night, one of our directors mentioned there is a Facebook page called Dexter Family Milk Cows which she is a member of. If that is where your interests lie, have a look. They also have a milking Dexters mentor program.
 
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 I am new here and new to Dexter life. I bought an 10 month old heifer and when she turned 13 months she gave birth. What a shock. I live in deep east Texas, and have rotating pastures for my cow and her heifer. My question is, I wasn't told she was pregnant and consequently wasn't feeding her properly for being pregnant. Now she is on the slim side and not producing a whole lot of milk. I am supplementing about 2qts of milk replacer for the calf. I understand that I should be feeding the cow about 2-2.5% of her body weight. Is that percentage twice a day or divided up to 1-1.25% twice a day? I am also feeding her high quality hay, as much as she wants off of square bales, usually 4 to 5 flakes a day.
 Very interesting thread and am happy to have stumbled upon it. Any and all help is deeply appreciated,  thank you.
 
Ron Metz
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Hi Tommy,

Cows carry calves for 9 months. If your heifer calved at 13 months she would have been bred at 4 months. That is not possible. Your heifer had to be older than the 10 months you were told when you bought her. I assume she is not registered. Yes cows will eat 2.0-2.5% of their body weight on a dry matter basis per day. Example, a 1000lb cow will eat 20-25lbs of hay on a dry matter basis. Dry matter basis means you have to take into consideration the moisture content of whatever forage you are feeding. Good quality dry hay would be closer to the 2.0% of body weight number while silage which contains more moisture would be closer to the 2.5% of body weight. The cow has to eat more of the silage to get the same amount of dry matter because of the higher moisture content of the silage.

It’s hard to advise you on how to feed your heifer other than keep good quality hay in front of her and supplement with range cubes. If she is really young(which you don’t know her real age)she herself may still be growing, she just finished growing a calf plus she is now nursing that calf. If this is her first calf, typically first calf heifers don’t produce as much milk as a more mature female. Any way you look at it, her nutritional needs right now are extremely high.


 
Tommy Tate
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Ron Metz wrote:Hi Tommy,

Cows carry calves for 9 months. If your heifer calved at 13 months she would have been bred at 4 months. That is not possible. Your heifer had to be older than the 10 months you were told when you bought her. I assume she is not registered. Yes cows will eat 2.0-2.5% of their body weight on a dry matter basis per day. Example, a 1000lb cow will eat 20-25lbs of hay on a dry matter basis. Dry matter basis means you have to take into consideration the moisture content of whatever forage you are feeding. Good quality dry hay would be closer to the 2.0% of body weight number while silage which contains more moisture would be closer to the 2.5% of body weight. The cow has to eat more of the silage to get the same amount of dry matter because of the higher moisture content of the silage.

It’s hard to advise you on how to feed your heifer other than keep good quality hay in front of her and supplement with range cubes. If she is really young(which you don’t know her real age)she herself may still be growing, she just finished growing a calf plus she is now nursing that calf. If this is her first calf, typically first calf heifers don’t produce as much milk as a more mature female. Any way you look at it, her nutritional needs right now are extremely high.


Ron,
 Thank you for your response. But I do have to respectfully disagree with your assessment that my cow was to young to become pregnant. She was a bottle baby and no mother to watch over her. I've asked many people last night, after your response, many of which have had the same issue. A heifer at 4 months CAN become pregnant and is VERY possible to happen. Heat cycles can begin then. My heifer is the age stated and confirmed by a veterinarian and owner through paperwork.
 I appreciate what you do for this site, very informative. My only question was about how much daily and divided grains and hay to be given to my cow throughout the day.

 
Ron Metz
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Hi Tommy,

On the feeding, I wouldn’t worry about dividing her rations during the day. If she is in poor condition and nursing a calf, I would keep good quality hay in front of her at all times(all she can eat)along with fresh clean water. I would also give her an appropriate amount(read label for feeding directions)of a concentrated feed(like range cubes)as a supplement to the hay once per day.

On the other subject, in all my years of experience in the cattle industry dealing with different breeds of beef/dairy cattle I have never seen or heard of a 16 week old heifer calf reaching puberty and coming into estrus let alone breeding without the possibility of injury. Because other people you talked to(I’m assuming Dexter breeders/owners) have said they experienced the same phenomenon, I am going to poll our board of directors and breeders I know and see if they have had or heard of such a thing. I will get back to you on what they say. Maybe I will learn something new about the breed.
 
Eliot Mason
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Good hay is a great start.  Let me tell you what I do ...

I give them a mix of hay types with alfalfa.  I also give them a tub of protein & minerals.  The amount of hay they get depends on where they are - once they're in the barn (and warmer and dryer) their needs decrease significantly.  I also watch their behavior to see if they think they're getting enough.

My approach would be to let her eat as much as she wants, being careful to not give too much alfalfa (bloat can result).
 
Ron Metz
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Tommy.

As promised, I visited with some board members and didn’t have to go beyond that. Two of them confirmed they have had young heifers, one 5 months and another 6 months come into heat and get bred. Neither was as young as yours but none the less too young. I stand corrected and have learned something new about Dexters. I have never experienced this issue with my Dexters and hope I never do. Although it is not common, people reading these posts should be aware of the possibility and manage their Dexter bulls accordingly.
 
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