|LIVING WITH DEXTERS: Some Considerations
|Your new Dexters might be your first cattle or perhaps your
first livestock of any kind. If you’ve had a horse or other
farm animals before, you have some idea of the environment
and care big animals need. A person completely new to
livestock, however, needs to look carefully at his place and
evaluate what is needed for Dexters. Here are some things to
This has been the single most important and expensive problem I’ve had, even with good perimeter fencing to start
Even small cows are relatively big compared to other livestock. Your Dexters, not being riding animals like horses,
probably won't come to you halter-broken and well-accustomed to being handled, as a saddle horse would. Fencing
designed for goats, for example, might be adequate for a horse, but not for Dexters. To avoid “rodeo” herding, plan
well-thought out pasture-connected corral/s, with a sweep and headgate or some other method of immobilizing animals
for the vet or routine care.
Chances are, tying a cow to the fence of an open corral isn’t going to work very well. Having made this mistake, I can
tell you that only small calves can be kept still for, e.g.. vaccination and tattooing, by haltering and winching the head up
next to a corral fence.
Your perimeter fencing needs to be 4’ or more high, preferably with a hot wire inside at nose level. I like woven wire. I’
ve never had the luxury of enough small, secure pens for confinement or a lane for moving cows from one area to
another. If your cows have a well-defined lead cow that the herd will follow, this might not be important. But if you live
next to a road the herd can get to (and don’t roadsides always seem to have the yummiest grass?) or don’t have pet-
like cows, it ‘s better to have a secure way to move them from one area to another, especially if you are the only
Electric fencing has its uses, but not as perimeter fencing. When it works, it’s great, but it can also be a maintenance
nightmare if the area has trees which shed branches or brush growing up to touch the wire or tape. Your animals will
respect it if you can make sure they have all gotten a jolt or three before you turn them out into an electric-fenced area.
However, no amount of electricity will keep a bull from a pasture full of prospective girlfriends!
Speaking of bulls, if you keep one, you must have some place strong enough to keep him in when he doesn’t want to be
kept in. Yes, Dexter bulls are small by big cow standards, but they are tremendously strong and can be (like mine) agile
jumpers, too. “Cattle panels” don’t hold a determined bovine Romeo. Can you tell this is sad experience again? Big
steel corral panels chained together and to fence posts at each juncture finally worked. The old adage that fences
should be “horse high, sheep tight and bull strong” is absolutely true.
When you keep Dexters in an area with a lot of commercial hay operations, rain is your friend; it magically turns “horse
hay” into much-cheaper “cow hay!” In arid regions with cold winters and never enough irrigation water, the small place
won’t supply all the forage a few cows need. Grass goes dormant in the heat of summer, to revive somewhat with fall
rains. But don't kid yourself; on a place of only a few acres, grass will be the candy bar, not the staple. Your little
pasture should be cherished, grazed in rotation and the cows put up into corrals when the grass is gone so that they don’
t damage the roots.
In south Texas, alfalfa hay is much more expensive than grass hay; sudan and coastal bermuda dominate. Where alfalfa
is available at a good price, it gives much more bang for the buck – even not-great alfalfa with some mold and stems in
it. Cows aren’t picky eaters. They eat the best parts first, as we all do, then the rest. A small bale of alfalfa should
hold a Dexter for three days, I’ve read, but mine always started mooing plaintively for more on the second day. So I
give it to them, even suspecting that they really don’t need it all that much.
Grain isn’t a necessity for Dexters, unless you prefer the mild taste of grain-fattened steers. I use grain, cow cake and
horse candy as a treat and a lure. Not every cow would rather follow you to get sweet feed than wander off for new
grass, but most of them certainly will.
People are freaked out by horns, as if the cow’s aim in life were to skewer everyone she meets. Horns are weapons,
and good ones, especially when used by fearless mama cows whose calves are threatened by dogs or other varmints.
Dexters are placid beasts generally, but can accidentally hook the careless owner, often when crowding around as he’s
bringing grain or treats. New owners with little kids worry about the horns a lot, too. Obviously any cow who
habitually uses her horns as weapons against humans needs to go into the freezer! Bulls seem to enjoy their horns a little
too much, using them as push bars and tools,
I think it’s a pity to breed only polled animals or to dehorn everything you breed, since the Dexter’s beautiful black-
tipped white horns are so distinctive. Dexters have several “horn styles,” some of which look more threatening than
others and which are an inherited characteristic. The cow on the Tollgate Farm home page, like her dam, has
particularly beautiful horns in a lyre shape. Others have Jersey-like horns which curl toward the forehead like a wreath.
Both of these styles aren’t too likely to hook the unwary by mistake. Then there’s the “Longhorn” style –broad,
horizontal and reaching impressive proportions – also inherited. After thinking about this “horn problem,” I’ve devised
a plan. From now on I’m going to dehorn all males as babies and also the heifers from my cows with the “Longhorn”-
style horns. Maybe someday all my horned cattle will have the two beautiful, ”safe” styles.
Don’t yell, don’t hit, don’t chase, don’t use nippy dogs, don’t use cattle prods – no matter how mad you are. Keeping
everybody calm and moving slowly will end up saving time. Leading with a bucket of food works better than anything
else for me.
BOS DEXTERUS UNDOCUMENTUS : A Cautionary Tale
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