Have a cow, man!

Contrary to Bart Simpson’s famous saying “Don’t have a cow, man.”, we exhort all health-conscious mortals to consider the benefits of cow ownership. Clearly the best solution for the confirmed urbanite is fractional ownership — same idea as resort condos. This is the model for Michael Schmidt’s Glencolton Farms. But until that model gains wider acceptance in the legal and regulatory communities there are, believe it or not, other solutions.

The most obvious of these is the “small” cow. Dexter seems to be the small breed of choice for many would-be miniature cattle owners. First, we bring you an excerpt from a Toronto Star, Sept 6, 2008 story titled “Small cows have a big future in Ontario” by Francine Kopun:

Dexter cattle are user friendly. Photo by Fred Thornhill, for the Star

Dexter cattle are user friendly. Photo by Fred Thornhill, for the Star

“Have a cow. Seriously.

Not a humongous, lumbering soft-eyed hay-eater. Those are for cattle ranchers.

The cow for you is petite, the height of a big dog, survives on grass and bushes and produces high-quality milk or meat. A mini-cow.

At 700 pounds, they remain unsuitable for condo balconies or even the average backyard, but mini-cows like the Dexter, growing in popularity in North America, can live happily on half a hectare or less.

“My cows are the talk of the neighbourhood because they are small and they live on weeds,” says Charlotte Gushue of Charlotte’s Web Farm in Millbrook.

The Dexter is a cow whose time has come, enthusiasts say. They keep your lawn cropped, and produce food, making them energy efficient. And if you keep your own cow, you know it’s not hopped up on hormones or stuffed with chemicals.

“One of our slogans is, `The small cow with a big future.’ It’s the perfect cow for an acreage outside of town,” says Graham Dalziel, a director of the Canadian Dexter Cattle Association and owner of Riverlot Dexters in Smoky Lake, Alta., northeast of Edmonton.

Tom Henry, the editor of Small Farm Canada magazine, says small breeds are here to stay. The physical size of these breeds suits a lot of small farmers, he says. They are easier animals to handle and they yield more manageable amounts of meat.

“All that said, I think they’re enjoying a little bit of a renaissance now, which mean that they will probably enjoy a non-renaissance somewhere a few years down the road.”

Dexters originated in Ireland, according to Dalziel’s organization. Originally kept by small landholders, they were known as the “poor man’s cow.” The average Dexter cow can produce eight or more litres of milk per day and survive just about anywhere. They calve easily, without the expensive intervention of a veterinarian. And they’re user friendly….”

And now a few words on the small cow moovement, from the Mother Earth News and an article titled Ideal Small Farm Cows: Dexter Cattle”

The Foley family of Indiana with a Dexter heifer. Photo Anna Poole from The Mother Earth News

The Foley family of Indiana with a Dexter heifer. Photo Anna Poole from The Mother Earth News

“Pound for pound, no bovine can match the diversity of Dexter cattle, one of the smallest cattle breeds. Standing just 36 to 44 inches at the shoulder, Dexters are the perfect old-fashioned, family cow. Gentle, versatile and economical, Dexters efficiently turn pasture into rich milk and lean meat, if you’re so inclined. In recent years, interest in Dexter cattle has surged worldwide. Here’s why:

They’re the perfect size for the family homestead. One Dexter cow will give about 1 to 2 gallons of milk a day, a much more manageable amount for a single family than the 8 to 10 gallons a typical Holstein yields. If you raise a Dexter for beef, you’ll need room in the freezer for about 400 pounds of meat, rather than 600 to 800 pounds you’d get from a typical full-size steer.

Owning a Dexter is like owning a piece of history and doing your part to help preserve genetic diversity. They are one of the world’s smallest true breeds of cattle, not a miniature developed from a larger breed.

They are believed to have originated in Ireland, and were imported into the United States in the early 20th century. “When I think of Dexters, I think of little, small farms on postage stamps 100 years ago,” says Drew Conroy, associate professor of applied animal science at the University of New Hampshire. Conroy says Dexters’ small size has contributed to their numbers growing by leaps and bounds today. It also has been their biggest genetic disadvantage: Dexters, especially the smaller ones, are prone to a genetic disorder which occasionally causes cows to give birth to stillborn “bulldog calves,” with deformed faces.

Looking after a Dexter can be fun for children and can give them a sense of accomplishment. With proper attention and training, a Dexter can be easily handled by even the greenest homesteader. Don’t expect that dazed-cow stare, though. “For their small size, they’re pretty lively,” Conroy says. Dexters can be trained like oxen to plow or pull wagons, and their strength belies their size. At the same time, that size makes them less intimidating to children and adults.

Cowgirl riding into the sunset on a Dexter mount. Photo from Dex-Info.net

Cowgirl riding into the sunset on a Dexter mount. Photo from Dex-Info.net

Veterinarian Donald Bixby, executive director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, recently saw a demonstration of the Dexter’s ability in the yoke. While attending a draft-animal workshop, he saw a woman put a 9-year-old Dexter steer into the yoke for the first time. “He stepped right off like he’d been born in it,” Bixby said. “I was just amazed at what seemed like an innate willingness to do whatever she wanted.”

Those who raise Dexters for beef report tender meat with excellent flavor. Grain-fed Dexters will yield 250 pounds at 12 months, and 475 to 500 pounds at 24 months, dressing at about 60 percent of their live weight. These results can be obtained by supplemental feeding of only 5 to 7 pounds of grain per day for the last two to three months. Grass-fed animals yield about 55 percent of their live weight…”

More information can be found at Dex-Info resource website.

1 Comment

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One response to “Have a cow, man!

  1. For anyone looking at fractional ownership of cows, try yours2share.com We don’t have any yet, but there is no reason why farmers don’t offer people fractional shares in single cows or even small herds. Or two or more people could get together to buy a cow together. There are lots of possibilities.

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