April and May is calving season at Nick and Janice Woodhouse’s acreage near Dalmeny, Sak., but the couple isn’t concerned about getting up in the middle of the night to monitor their herd of Dexter cows.
“I’ve never experienced any calving problems or had to assist with any births,” says Nick, who has been raising purebred and grass-finished Dexter cattle for more than 10 years.
The animals’ ease of calving was one feature that attracted Nick and Janice to this small heritage breed. It is, in fact, the smallest true breed of cattle in the world. The cows weigh an average of 750 pounds and stand about 38-42 inches at the shoulder. Bulls weigh about 1,000 pounds. Dexters can be horned or polled, and are generally black, dun or red in colour.
Originate from Ireland
Dexter cattle originated in Ireland where they were sometimes referred to as “poor man’s cows” because they require less pasture and are ideal for small landowners. The breed is common in the U.K. and gaining in popularity in North America, partly because they are so well suited to small farms and acreages. “They don’t require a lot of space and are therefore economical to keep,” says Nick. “We figure about three acres per cow, depending on the area, rainfall and soil conditions.
“Dexters aren’t suited to feedlot operations,” he says “They’re not designed to eat grain and they don’t need rich feed. They do well on, and actually prefer, rougher grasses.”
Dexters are hardy, healthy, long-lived animals. They are a dual-purpose breed; are docile and easy to handle. Dexters are good milk producers for anyone wanting a milk cow. “They won’t produce as much milk as a Jersey, but the butterfat content is very close to that of a Jersey. The fat globules are very small, making it easy to digest,” says Nick.
Nick and Janice grew up in northern England. Janice has a farm background and Nick has worked in agriculture since he was a teenager. “We were the suburban couple who wanted to farm,” he says. But the dream of owning land in England was beyond their reach.
In 1993 while working as an agricultural ventilation specialist, Nick had the opportunity to visit and travel across Canada. In Saskatoon he met up with a fellow Englishman, who he says was a good ambassador for the province.
“Six months later, we were here (in Saskatchewan) with our suitcases and our two small children,” Nick says.
“In the end, I think we made the move for our children, James and Jennifer,” says Janice. “They’ve had so many opportunities here.”
The couple initially purchased land near Lacombe, Alta., but Nick’s work meant frequent trips to Manitoba. They began looking for an acreage in Saskatchewan and settled on 40 acres near Dalmeny, northwest of Saskatoon. The property needed some TLC and Nick set about demolishing old buildings and refencing, initially about 15 acres with page wire. Janice’s parents suggested buying a few sheep for the grandchildren.
They started with a purebred Dorset ram and Suffolk/Rambouillet crosses for ewes. Everything was going well until 2002 when the drought came and they had to buy all our hay for a couple of years.
“Small squares were costing us over $8 a bale,” says Nick. “Then, in 2003 BSE hit in Alberta which restricted livestock movements, and after that we couldn’t give the sheep away.”
Introduced to Dexters
The Woodhouses purchased their first four bred Dexter heifers at a dispersal sale in 2006. After much anticipation awaiting the arrivals of the calves the following spring, it turned out only one heifer was bred. “That was when we bought our first bull — Black Gold Halcyon Fritz — a registered purebred,” says Nick.
The couple’s Dexter herd has grown to 18 head over the years. Except for the original cows, all their animals are registered, or are in the process of being registered. They butcher beef for their own use as well as a few farmgate sales. sales.
“We like to wait until the steers are at least 24 months before we butcher,” says Janice. “The meat is lean and flavourful. It has a fine grain and is quite distinctive with its darker red colour. Grass-fed animals also have a creamy-yellow fat. There is very little shrinkage in the steaks.”
She says more education on how to properly cook grass-fed beef would be helpful in order for consumers to appreciate the taste and quality of the slow grown natural product.
The smaller cuts from Dexter animals are perfect for health-conscious consumers who enjoy the naturally raised, grass and hay-fed beef, but prefer smaller quantities. “Our animals are all raised without hormones or antibiotics’ seems to be what everybody is claiming these days. In fact, we never have or needed to administer any drugs to our animals anyways,” says Nick.
The Woodhouses sell some of their stock to hobbyists like themselves who want a few animals for pets and to keep the grass down on their acreages. “Make sure you don’t give them names, or you’ll have a difficult time when you have to butcher them,” Nick says.
Are there any disadvantages with Dexters? Nick says the heifers are fertile at a very early age. “If people aren’t familiar with the breed and have the young heifers exposed to a bull when they’re six to eight months old, that can create problems. We generally don’t breed our heifers until they’re around 15 months.”
Nick and Janice agree their Dexters aren’t a moneymaking venture, and they won’t be giving up their day jobs anytime soon.
“But we break even, and we enjoy having the animals around,” says Nick. “Coming home after a long day and going out to pasture with the dogs is a way of letting go of stress.”
Nick is currently a Director of the Canadian Dexter Cattle Association (CDCA). The organization provides valuable information and support for Dexter enthusiasts. The CDCA is encouraging young people to choose Dexter for their 4-H calf project. By doing so they may qualify for money from the CDCA.
Rescuing and restoring old English Davy Brown tractors is what Nick calls “another crazy hobby.” It took about three years to find his first Davy Brown, but the abandoned tractor was resurrected and is now a useful addition to their farm. “I now have five in various states of restoration. It’s another reason he won’t be giving up his day job,” he says.