By Rose Marie Belforti
My husband and I have a great interest in the promotion and conservation of the Dexter breed and hope to bring awareness to the importance of raising and farming with Dexter cattle. Our small cattle can do important work for sustainable agriculture. There has been an amazing surge over the years in goat ownership, and there are numerous goat cheeses on the market now. The Dexter can have the same acclaim. A “contented cow” is joyful thing to behold!
Although there are a few Dexter dairies in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, we are not aware of any at this time in the United States. Our hope is that Dexter cattle will become more popular as we begin the trend back to local family-run operations and away from large corporate factory farming. Our small cattle have a lot of work power, and we think it is time for them to show off a bit. Our dairy has grown out of a passion for “the little mountain cow,” and love for their rich, high butterfat milk.
Dexter cows measure 34-42 inches at the withers. They do wonderfully on pasture and do not need any other supplements, although if one wants to feed a little grain or alfalfa, that is fine to boost the milk production a little, or give them extra energy after calving. But they will do just fine on quality grass hay and pasture. Their milk supply is somewhere between two and three gallons a day at the height of lactation, and the butterfat is high, like that of a Jersey. The advantages of Dexters are that they eat less, take up less space and are easier to manage than a full size cow. Moreover, they have not been bred to the hilt for one trait, such as milk or beef, so their genetics are stronger, giving them an advantage over the overbred breeds like Holsteins. They are “easy to finish,” which means they are ideal for grass-fed beef projects.
Dexters calve very well and do not require vaccinations in most areas because they are so hardy. They are clever, intelligent and interested—with spicy personalities! They make good friends too!
We grass feed and pasture our cattle, and we use no drugs or other additives in their feed or care. The milk is as clean and fresh as can be! We love our cows—each one is a friend and unique. They are part of the family. Their well-being comes first in our thoughts before production concerns. Therefore, we make sure they mother their calves for as long as they can before we wean the calves. Our cattle always have access to pasture, and are never confined. Since we are a small operation, we can have a humane approach to dairying. Caring for the cows is as important to us as milking them for cheese. That is very important in a world where dairying seems to forget tovalue that sacred animal—the cow!
With great appreciation, we thank all those who have helped us get started, and especially we thank the greatest Beryl Rutherford, who kept Dexter cows in England for so many years and introduced us all to the hope of having a chondro-dysplasia-free herd. Although she is retired now, she has, through correspondence, been instrumental in rescuing us at our most chaotic moments when training our cows, tending to their ailments, and all aspects of hand milking and dairying. Without her advice and good humor, we would certainly have given up!
We love the closeness we have with our herd. I think they like it too! Having quality time with them twice a day, training them to become docile milkers and teaching them polite manners in the milk parlor has been very rewarding. Don’t let anyone ever tell you a Dexter cannot be milked! We can tell you, after an entire summer of training one of the most stubborn gals ever—it can be done! Stick with it. Routine is the key to the heart and mind of a Dexter. Do the same thing every day—that is what they like best. After a while, this routine becomes what you like best too. It has been a very rewarding experience for us, and we look forward to many years of enjoyment making our new product and being with our family of milking Dexters.
Let’s hope there is new interest in raising Dexters for the work they can do to bring milk to our tables. We hope that our model for a Dexter dairy will inspire others and be an example for others to build their their own dreams. Dexter milk is exquisite, and well worth our efforts.
This article appeared in the Fall 2007 edition of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.