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The Smallest British Breed has a Long History

One of the most unique facts about Dexter cattle is their extensive history. Of Irish origin, the Dexter was highly valued by peasant farmers of the 1800’s, whose small holdings provided marginal grazing in a tough climate. They found the naturally hardy Dexter to be the perfect provider of meat and milk. 


Dexter cattle herdbooks are some of the oldest cattle pedigree records in the world. “Livestock of the Farm, Cattle, Volume 1” produced in 1919 by The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd of London states that the first Irish herdbook was started in 1877 by the Dublin Farmers’ Gazette issuing a “Register of Pure Kerry Cattle and Dexters”. Three volumes were issued before the Royal Dublin Society took over the rights of publication in 1890. The same source tells us that “The English Kerry and Dexter Herd Book” was established in 1900. Dexters became very popular on the rolling estates of the English gentry, and are still a favoured show animal today. The Kerry and the Dexters were later recorded in separate herdbooks being identified as distinctly different types. The American herdbook followed a decade later with the opening of their herdbook in 1911.


Dexters first appeared in Australia after being imported by the Syme family in the late 1890’s. They graced the show rings of Australia as early as 1894 when they were photographed at the Royal Melbourne show. The Hawkesbury College in New South Wales also maintained a dairy herd of Dexters in the early 1900’s where the herd provided practical, hands-on training for the agricultural students and kept the college in milk. Dexters seemed to have disappeared from Australian farming at a time coinciding with the Second World War. 


In spite of their earlier popularity the prevalence of herds around the world dwindled and the Dexter Breed was listed with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the 1970’s. The declaration of the breed as being at risk of extinction gave rise to a new interest in Dexter cattle around the world. Australia was among those countries where a new generation of breeders emerged on a mission to rescue the Dexter and it’s unique characteristics. 


Australia was void of purebred females so the only way to establish the Dexter breed in Australia at that time was by grading up. Imported semen of purebred Dexter bulls was used to inseminate cows of other breeds. This strategy was to ensure sufficient numbers of cattle could be bred to fulfill the demand for females which would form the foundation of the national herd. 


The first Dexters to be imported into Australia in modern times were imported by Bridie Prettejohn who in 1988 imported two females in calf to a British bull ‘Whitegates Storm’ and a young bull ‘Saltaire Guiness’. The heifers produced two bulls, Kalinda Angus and Kalinda Allan. 


Later in 1988 importation from UK was banned. Similar bans were applied to the rest of Europe within the next few years. The outbreak of BSE (Mad Cow Disease) meant Dexter enthusiasts could no longer access Dexter semen from UK so several breeders looked to Canada and US to source breeding livestock. Apart from the scarcity of Dexter sale stock world-wide, associated quarantine expenses made this a prohibitive exercise for many other aspiring Dexter breeders. 


Full blood animals with pure Dexter genetics were also introduced to Australia by way of imported embryos and further imported semen. The significant commitment from the early Australian Dexter breeders and Foundation Members of Dexter Cattle Australia provided a strong and diverse genetic base. 


The Australian herdbook is structured on a framework of good practice and genetic testing. Registration in the Australian herdbook requires cattle to be parent verified, originally by blood-type and more recently by DNA. The DCAI Dexter Cattle Herdbook is based on science making it one of the most comprehensive and reliable herd records in the world. This reliable breeding information enables Australian breeders to produce excellent examples of true Dexter cattle with confidence and integrity. 

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