October’s talk came from Judy Lewis and Peat Gleed of the Dexter Cattle Society. Judy spoke first, and described how she and her husband Rhidian bought their first Dexter cow in calf in 1975, and within a few years had increased their herd to 4 cows and a bull. At this point the breed was at serious risk of dying out, as there were only 79 registered cows, and 17 bulls. The good news is that since then numbers have increased markedly; in 2013 there were 2001 registered cows and 111 bulls.
Dexters are a small, hardy breed and seem to be as equally at home on 1300 foot hills as they are on lowland pasture. The price of animals can vary between £300-£1000, and in large part depends on whether or not the animal is registered. This brought Judy on to the point that if you are interested in starting with Dexters, you must think long and hard about what you want/need, and pick the animal that is right for you and your farm. As an example, Dexters come in both short and long-legged varieties. If your land is very wet and boggy, then probably the longer-legged cows will be better. Judy stated that it’s important to avoid breeding a short-legged cow with a short-legged bull as it leads to increased chance of ‘bull dog calves’ – a form of chondrodysplasia which is a fatal genetic mutation. This is thought to have come about due to the breed’s previously very small gene pool in the 1970s, however a blood test for carrier cows is available.
If you decide to take the plunge with Dexters, as with any other animal, take care when choosing. It can often be better to buy straight from a farmer rather than a market. This gives you chance to see them on their home territory, and get an idea of farm standards.
Despite the initial cost for a pedigree animal, Judy said that her cows have always earned their own living. They’ll happily live outside all year round, so long as they have a good hedge or a field shelter, so feed costs are low. Judy & Rhidian’s beef is sold purely through word of mouth and the cows are good milk converters, 4-5 gallons a day is not unknown.
Peat Gleed, then gave us a whistle-stop tour of the use of Dexters for conservation grazing. Due to their hardy nature, they’re ideally suited for poor quality grazing, such as heaths, and moorland. Similarly because of their small size, they work well on ground which needs to be managed sensitively.
All in all, this was a really interesting talk from both Judy and Peat, which raised a great deal of interest and discussion from all of the members present. Many thanks to both of you.
By Liz Phillips