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Dexter Cattle are the smallest natural European cattle breed of Bos taurus, and except for two other extremely rare natural African breeds of Bos indicus, the smallest in the world. Various reports have these native cattle introduced by man into Ireland in prehistoric times or definitely by 3000 BC. The breed was descended from the small black cattle of the early Celts, originating in the southwest region of Irelandís Kerry Mountains, a rugged, harsh mountainous region. The best mountain cattle of this district were the "Black Colored Cattle" mentioned in the 17th-18th centuriesí agricultural reports.

Their modern small size, appearance, name, and qualities originated around 1750 in County Tipperary. Known as "The Emerald Blackskins", these Kerries and Dexters were reared together in single herds. Their separation as two distinct breeds is only quite recent.

Kerry cattle - from the Irish "ciarraighe", the name of territory west of Abbeyfeale, Ireland - were light in the body and long in the leg. Dexter cattle were a hybrid breed probably descended from Kerries, which were black, and Devons, a red cattle imported to Ireland in considerable numbers from England in the 17th-18th centuries.

The modern Dexter name supposedly came from a certain "Mr. Dexter" who was a breeding agent for the English Lord Howarden who came to Ireland in 1750. This curious little breed was characterized by a remarkable roundness of form and shortness of legs. Rather than coming from a certain "Mr. Dexter", who was a small, stocky man, the Dexter name may come from the practice of sardonic Irish wit, where switching an adjective for a noun was common, since the adjective dexter in those times meant small, stocky, or short of stature.

The small Irish Dexter Cattle breed was fully described and mentioned by proper name in 1845, first introduced to England in 1882, and the Kerry and Dexter names split from each other in 1891. The Kerry and Dexter/Kerry Society was founded in England in 1892.

The first Dexter herds were imported into United States in 1905-15 with the American Kerry and Dexter Club organized in 1911. The Club name was changed to the American Dexter Cattle Association in 1957, and in 1983 the ADCA preferred designation was changed to Dexter Cattle rather than Irish Dexter Cattle.


Dexter cattle were raised in lowland pastures by the first settlers of Ireland, until invaders drove farm folk and their animals into wild mountainous and unsettled areas. These Dexters survived and thrived on sparse fare, harsh climates, and rough grazing, becoming "The Poor Manís Cow"since a small landowner was able to get supply of meat and milk for his family.

These cattle are small, gentle, hardy, thrifty, dual purpose, good keepers, playful, spunky, long-lived, and calve easily (40-50 pounds) while each herd has a leader or boss cow. They are used to having horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, llamas, and especially people around. Even the Dexter bull is almost as friendly (with some exceptions of course) as cows of many other breeds.

Dexters remain very free from common diseases like mastitis or TB, and are often referred to as a triple purpose breed, providing meat, milk, and power. As a beef animal, they provide delicious, lean, tender, flavorful, fine-grained, low fat beef with an oversized rib eye area. They also have a high percent dressed carcass and a very good average daily weight gain. As a milking cow, they provide a high butterfat, high protein, easily-digested milk in qualities/pound as high as other milking breeds. As draft animals, Dexters make agile, trainable, sturdy, smart, and willing to learn little oxen.

Their appearance generally takes one of two forms: the "Kerry-type" (long-legged, non-dwarf, taller, and thinner) or the "Dexter-type" (short-legged, dwarf, shorter, and thicker). Currently they come in two genetic colors, black and red, with various dun (or brown) phenotypes. Horned is the most common form, but polled are also available.

Usually three Dexters can be run on acreage in place of two large cows, requiring only 2 acres/cow with indifferent pasture and small orchards, 1.5 acres/cow with improved land treatment and various grazing tricks, 1 acre/cow with fair pasture, and 0.5 acre/cow with good pasture.

At one time there were less than 5000 Dexters worldwide, but now because of their rising popularity there are more than 15,000 with nearly 6000 in the United States. The American Livestock Breeds conservancy still lists the Dexter as a rare livestock breed.


The Dexter is dual purpose, both a milk-producing breed and a beef-producing breed.

Dexters can be black, red, or dun, and may have small amounts of white on the udders, genitals, underlines, and a few tail tassel hairs.

They have broad foreheads, tapering muzzles, strong lower jaws, with bright prominent eyes.

White black-tipped horns are moderately thick with an inward and upward curve.

Bodies are well-proportioned, of medium thickness, full, and well filled in.

Their skin is soft and mellow, with fine, plentiful, silky hair.

Cows at three years old are not over 750 pounds and are between 36-42 inches at the shoulder.

Bulls at three years old are not over 1000 pounds and are between 38-44 inches at the shoulder.



Web sites, herd books, pamphlets, and membersí books from the following Dexter Associations:

American Dexter Cattle Association
Canadian Dexter Cattle Association
Missouri Dexter Breeders Association
Dexter Cattle Australia Inc.
Dexter Cattle Society (United Kingdom)
Dexter Cattle Society (New Zealand)
Dexter Cattle Breedersí Society of South Africa

"Kerry and Dexter Cattle", P.L. Curran, Mount Salus Press Ltd., Dublin, Ireland, 1990.

"Dexter Cattle", John Hays, American Dexter Cattle Association, Columbia, MO, USA, 1984.

"The Dexter Cow", W.R. Thrower, Integrated Book Technology, Inc., Troy, NY, USA, 1996.


Written by Karen and John Kohut III of BT Farm, Jennings, Oklahoma, USA, members of the worldwide community of Dexter Cattle owners.

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