Small but hearty

Dexter cattle offers benefits
for breeders, Madison farmer says

The Irish breed proves that bigger is not always better

By Erin Lehman
Contributing Writer

(April 2008) – Small cattle may be the next big thing. Dexter cattle, an Irish breed that is smaller than typical breeds such as Angus or Holstein, are better fits for small farms, says Madison resident Tom Spry. He has been raising Dexters since 2004 and praises the breed’s convenient size.

Tom Spry

Photo by Erin Lehman

Tom Spry became involved with Dexter
cattle when his mother, Mary Pruitt,
learned about them in a magazine.

“The Dexter is an ideal little cow,” said Spry, 56. “Everyone wants them for their tiny farms.”
The Dexter is not a miniature, but a naturally small breed. It originated from the mountains of Ireland, where it thrived in a small habitat. Many believe that the Dexter is a mixed breed, a cross between the Devon and Kerry breeds. Its closest comparison may be the Scottish Highland breed, according to Lonnie Mason, Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Agent.
While a familiar breed, such as the Holstein, stands around 59 inches tall, the Dexter is 44 inches. Then there is an even shorter Dexter variety that stands around 38 inches tall. The result is that the Dexter produces less milk, less beef and requires less room than other cattle breeds.
Despite the benefits of the Dexter’s size, the breed’s popularity is just beginning to grow in the United States. Dexters are “rare” in this country, Mason said. He has been working with cattle for 25 years, and Spry is the only person he knows to raise Dexters.
Spry, a retired police officer, became involved with Dexters when his mother, Mary Pruitt, read about the cattle in a magazine. Pruitt was recently widowed and wanted to return to her farming roots, said Spry.
“It was more of what mom wanted, an old farm girl wanted,” Spry said.
Two herds of Dexter cattle were imported to the United States and established in Kentucky and Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. Pruitt bought four Dexters from a breeder on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and Spry helped her care for them. Since then, the mother-son pair has continued to breed Dexters.
Their 11-acre farm currently has 13 Dexters, two donkeys and a 1,000-pound bull. Although the Dexters won’t approach the larger bull, the animals live together peacefully.
“They’re charming, gentle, and easy to care for,” said Pruitt, 81. Her great-granddaughters, ages 7 and 10, enjoy combing the Dexters’ bangs.
Spry agrees that the Dexters are “very low key” animals. “They’re not born tame, but they’re born quiet,” he said.
In addition, the Dexter is a “hearty breed,” adaptable to climates from Canada to Florida, Mason said. They require less acreage and less feed than average cattle breeds.
“They’re probably one of the easiest animals to raise. They calve very well,” Spry said.
The family is practical about their “hobby,” as Spry calls it. Annually, they process one Dexter for beef, and they sell the majority of the cattle that is born on the farm for eating.
Dexter beef can cost twice as much as the beef in the supermarket. One explanation may be the Dexter’s lean and “tender meat with excellent flavor,” described a website called Mother Earth News.
Spry cited food scares such as the recent U.S. Department of Agriculture beef recall to explain the price difference.
“Unless you go to the meat market, you don’t know where that animal came from or what it’s gone through to get to the store,” Spry said. “Unlike that, I know what’s in our beef. It’s raised right off the pasture.”
This trend toward organic food may explain Dexter popularity.
“People are going back to the organic side of things and looking for a little cow in the backyard,” said Spry.
So far, Spry has not had any problems finding buyers for his Dexter cattle or their beef – partly because breeders are few. Small farms such as Pruitt’s pride themselves on their small but growing herds.
“We’re one of only three breeders in Indiana,” Pruitt said. But Pruitt is eager to share her fondness for Dexters. She hopes “others can get started and care for them too,” Pruitt said.
Dexters are seemingly easy to love. Breeders such as Pruitt and Spry can’t say enough about the benefits of the Dexter.
“Get a Dexter breeder to talk, and he’ll talk and talk,” Spry said.

• For more information about Dexter cows, visit the Mother Earth News website at www.motherearthnews.com.

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