The Dexter: Dynamite in a small package

Don’t be fooled by the Dexter’s size – this dual-purpose breed carries a higher proportion of its body weight as saleable meat than most beef breeds, and offers sterling weight gain and feed conversion. Annelie Coleman spoke to Piet van der Merwe, SA Dexter Breeders’ Society president, and discovered demand for this breed far exceeds supply.

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The Dexter is a formidable  dual-purpose breed with top beef and milk production, according to Piet van der Merwe SA Dexter Breeders’ Society president. It’s weight gain and feed conversion also compares very favourably with those of other dual-purpose breeds. Higher carcass yields, smaller cuts and extraordinary beef quality make the Dexter a viable option for beef producers. The beef is known for its exceptional marbling, tenderness and texture.

“In a slaughter ox competition facilitated by the Nooitgedacht Agricultural Centre in Mpumalanga, Dexter beef sold for some R2/kg more than the large framed carcasses,” says Piet. “The Dexters competed with 17 beef cattle breeds. The average ADG of the 15 Dexters participating was 1,16kg, while a gold merit Phase C Dexter bull achieved an ADG of 1,61kg and an FCR of 5,07.”

Dexters produce more saleable meat The Dexter has a higher proportion of saleable meat for its body weight than most beef breeds, including Hereford, Angus and Brahman. Piet explains that a Dexter has a significantly larger rib eye muscle cross-section area relative to its body weight than most other breeds, translating into a higher proportion of saleable meat. The rib eye is one of the largest muscles of the carcass. It lies on either side of the spine and runs the full length of the back. The cross-section area of this muscle has a strong correlation to the total weight of muscle in the carcass, since all the muscles are proportional to one another.

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A large rib eye muscle area is therefore a good indication of an increased yield of retail cuts of meat. The measurement of rib eye muscle by itself doesn’t mean much. But in terms of cm²/100kg body weight, it allows comparison between animals of different sizes and weights. Tests done in Australia have shown that the Dexter’s rib eye muscle area surpasses that of 38 other breeds, including Hereford, Brahman, Simmentaler and Angus. “The hardy Dexter has been in South Africa for more than 100 years,” says Piet. “Because of the small frame, a farmer can keep two Dexter cows instead of one medium- or large-framed cow. Calves are weaned on 210 days and the average weaner weight fluctuates between 139kg and 190kg.

This means a production of close to 400kg on the same area of land supporting one medium- or large-framed animal. A high slaughtering percentage is the norm. For example, a Dexter ox of 18 months, with a live weight of 393kg, slaughtered out at 61% during a carcass competition in 2007. A 17-month-old ox, with a live weight of 374kg, slaughtered out at 59% with a meat to bone ratio of 16:82 during the same competition. “At the Australian Gympie Carcase Classic, Dexter carcasses achieved maximum points for fat cover on rump, rib fat, fat distribution, pH, meat colour, fat colour and texture, marbling, and meat texture and firmness,” Piet continues.

Record milk yields
Despite her small frame, the Dexter cow is an excellent milker. Long-term official breed statistics show an average yield of 3 574kg of milk over a 299-day period equating to 11,9â„“/day. This means that a Dexter cow can yield six times her body weight in milk in a single lactation. The butterfat content of Dexter milk varies from 3,4% to 4,7%. “One easily underestimates the Dexter cow,” he says. “The animals are very compact with short legs. The SA Dexter Breeders Society standards require a cow to measure 112cm just in front of the rump.

“The ideal Dexter cow is wedge-shaped with a well-balanced body. A healthy, well-developed and high-placed udder with evenly placed, medium-sized teats is typical. The breed is known for its exceptional mothering instinct and fertility, and pregnancy rates of between 96% and 97% are not uncommon.
The heifers are early maturing and can be put to the bull from 12 to 14 months. The average birth weight is 25kg to 27kg and the ICP is 415 days. Longevity is one of the breed characteristics and there are several cows on record that lived productively for 20 years or more.”

The Dexter as a good crossbreeder
The Dexter bull is a good choice for first mating of any heifer, Piet explains. He uses his Dexter bulls for first matings of his Braunvieh stud heifers at about 16 months. This eradicates any calving problems. The average birth weight is 31kg. The calves are weaned at seven months at an average weight of 193kg.

The fact that the heifers were put to the Dexter bull at such a young age meant that she produced more calves than typical for her lifetime. A Dexter bull must be well balanced and solid with a relatively light bone structure and a straight topline, measuring 120cm just in front of the rump. Powerful legs with strong feet are essential, in line with the breed’s strong walking ability. A long body with well-muscled shoulders, neck and chest is essential.
Contact Piet van der Merwe on 082 952 1084  

Why farm with Dexters?
Pieter and Wilma du Preez in the Wesselsbron district own the Onyx Dexter Stud, consisting of 47 animals. The stud includes one bull and 22 breeding cows. Asked why they prefer the breed, Pieter explains: “We don’t own any land, but rent 40ha. On these 40ha we run our stud very comfortably. The herd is kept on veld conditions with only the normal summer and winter licks. My wife and I both have other careers, but over and above the fact that we love our Dexters dearly, the breed makes money for us. Under our circumstances, what other breed could have performed equally well?”

Although they sell weaners to the local abattoir, the stud industry is their main market. They plan on increasing their stud to at least 50 breeding animals because of the higher demand for Dexters. “The breed is becoming more popular because its profitability is increasingly recognised by the cattle fraternity in South Africa,” says Wilma. “Over the last three years Dexter prices have more than doubled.” The record price for a stud Dexter bull in South Africa is R18 000, set some two years ago at a private sale. Record prices of R14 000 for both a cow and open heifer were realised at the 2010 Overvaal Dexter Club’s annual sale.

The Dexter is a perfect option for an emerging farmer on a small piece of land. “It’s a hardy breed that thrives under extensive conditions and requires relatively little input. More Dexters than medium- or large-framed animals can be kept per hectare, increasing calf production and ultimately productivity.”
Contact Onyx Dexters at 083 204 9587

Bulldog gene
In the past, some breeding lines were hampered by a genetic peculiarity called chondrodysplasia, commonly known as the “bulldog” gene. It inhibits the development of cartilage in the foetus and causes the cow to abort at around seven months. This gene has fortunately been isolated and can now be successfully managed through DNA-testing. The Breed Society has introduced measures to encourage breeders to take part in the DNA testing programmes to eliminate it from the South African Dexter herd.

Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.