Dexter cattle are a small cattle breed which originated in the South of Ireland. These cattle rarely grow above 44 inches (112 centimeters) at the shoulder, leading some people to mistake them for miniature cows. They are in fact a true small cattle breed, not a miniaturized breed. In addition to being raised in many parts of Great Britain and Ireland, Dexter cattle are also found in many other regions of the world, especially North America.
These cattle may be small, but they are also sturdy and very hardy. Dexter cattle are famous for being easy keepers, requiring little maintenance and thriving on forage and minimal dietary supplementation. The cows produce a high volume of milk, and the milk is rich in butterfat, making it suitable for a wide range of uses. They also calve very dependably, usually producing a calf each year which can be raised for meat or for milk; both sexes tend to be very stocky, with rich, well-marbled meat.
The breed emerged in the 1800s, and it is believed to be the result of crossing Kerry cattle with the Devon. The “Dexter” comes from a mysterious “Mr. Dexter” who is sometimes credited with developing the breed, although it is somewhat difficult to find any historical evidence that Mr. Dexter really existed. Originally, Dexter cattle were bred as house cows, designed to provide a single household with milk and meat for a minimum amount of effort, and Dexter cattle continue to be raised for this very purpose around the world.
For people with a small amount of land, Dexter cattle can be preferable to raising full-sized cattle. They are also much easier to handle than larger cattle breeds, and they are known for being curious, gentle, and friendly, with even young children handling Dexter cattle with ease. These traits allow people with less farming experience to raise Dexter cattle, and make the cattle popular projects for children in organizations like 4-H.
Most Dexter cattle are black, although some may be dun or red. The breed is broken in two main groups, distinguished by leg length: short-legged Dexter cattle have unusually short, somewhat stumpy legs, while the long-legged variety have legs of a more familiar length. Both males and females grow horns, with some people preferring to de-horn at a young age for safety reasons. Breeders of Dexter cattle can be found in some farming communities, and many are willing to arrange long-distance shipping for people who wish to start raising this breed.