Dexter cattle are a multipurpose breed of cattle bred for the small family farm. They are one of the world’s smallest bovines. The average bull measures 38 to 44 inches tall at the shoulder, and the average cow measures 36 to 42 inches tall at the shoulder. Most Dexters are solid black; some are reddish-brown. There are also two varieties of Dexter, short-legged and long-legged.
Dexter cattle are native to southern Ireland where they were raised by small ranchers and allowed to roam free in the hills. They are gentle, hardy, easy animals that do well outdoors year-round, so long as they are given a windbreak.
The first record of Dexter cattle being introduced to North America is around the turn of the 20th century, although the first may have been imported sooner than that.
Dexter cattle are raised for milk and for meat. Their milk is high in butterfat and volume is good for such a small cow. Their beef is considered very high quality.
Recently there has been a worldwide surge of interest in Dexter cattle. The breed is listed as “recovering” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a non-profit organization working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock.
Several species on exhibit in the Farmyard at The Maryland Zoo, including Dexter cattle, are not commonly seen on farms today. They are representatives of a bygone era when small, local family farms were at the heart of agriculture. As modern farm practices have changed, historic breeds of livestock have waned in popularity but not in importance. Each breed is important because it is unique and contributes to richness of life. This richness of life – known as biodiversity – is as precious and worthy of preservation in domesticated animals as it is in wild animals.
For at least 10,000 years, people have bred domesticated animals. Farm animals were bred for specific qualities that helped them thrive in a particular location and serve the needs of the local population. Over time, the practice of selective breeding – carried out many times over across the world, but in relative isolation – gave rise to a rich diversity of domesticated breeds that could tolerate varied climatic conditions and fulfill many roles.
Modern agriculture does not favor this rich diversity of breeds. It has come to favor the use of a few, highly specialized breeds that fulfill singular roles extremely well – producing more milk, for example, or fattening quickly. What modern, commercial agriculture gains from this is efficiency and mass production capability. What it may lose, if many historic farm breeds are allowed to go extinct, is genetic diversity.
Genetic diversity – the wellspring of unique organic differences both great and small – is as critical to domesticated animals as it is to wild animals. When any breed of livestock goes extinct, its genetic material is lost forever, and consequently its unique traits. If conditions were ever to favor those traits again, they would be irretrievable.
As many people involved in agriculture around the world are now recognizing, it is important to conserve historic breeds of livestock. They are part of our agricultural heritage and they are essential contributors to an overall richness of life worth preserving.