Dexters - the lucrative little wonders of the beef world

With meat prices above €5/kg, easy calving and an ability to thrive on marginal land, the dwarf native Irish breed is enjoying a revival, writes Martin Ryan

Sean Flannery
Sean Flannery

Getting a regular factory base beef price above €5/kg is a pipe dream for most producers, but it has become a reality for Sean Flannery.

"This year I got €5.25/kg. It was €5.50 last year and I'm hoping to see it back up again next year - and maybe a little better," says the Kildare man.

Sean has a herd of dwarf Dexter cattle, whose meat is attracting a growing following and helping build a speciality both at home and abroad.

"It a marbled meat that is selling very well at home and ABP are now marketing it into Belgium at a premium price. The only problem we have is there is not enough of it to meet the demand," he says.

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Sean Flannery's Dexter cattle
Sean Flannery's Dexter cattle

It's not just the price of the meat that makes Dexters an attractive option for farmers: this breed can be finished to beef off grass, they are very easy calving, and they thrive on marginal land, spending most of their lives outdoors.

Sean Flannery and a growing number of other producers have found a lucrative niche in a depressed sector. Dexters are one of the oldest native Irish breeds of beef animals; they had become almost extinct in this country but the revival is well under way.

Sean keeps a small herd on his limited lands at Donadee, in north Kildare. He and has been generous with his time in helping other breeders to build up herds.

Born into a farming family in Woodford, Co Galway, he recalls spotting Dexters at a street fair in the late 1950s.

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"I always had a great interest in farming and I went to agricultural college at Clonakilty in the '60s but then I went in to the nursery business," explained Sean, who is retired from that sector and devotes his time to his Dexters.

"I suppose it all started for me when I attended the gathering of Dexter breeders in Dundrum in Tipperary in 2013.

Sean's Dexter cattle
Sean's Dexter cattle

"People came from all over the world to that gathering not because they were Irish but because they had Irish Dexter cattle or had an interest in the breed."

Sean always had an interest in rare breeds and had kept Connemara and Kerry ponies as a hobby.

"At that time they were trying to revive the Irish Rare Breeds Society and I got interested in that, although that never really got off the ground," he says.

"But I acquired the first of my Dexters in 2014 from two herds in Co Kildare and went on to build the herd, sell some foundation stock to other breeders, and finish some of the male animals to commercial beef."


The Bord Bia-certified Quality Assured commercial beef animals are slaughtered at the ABP factory at Nenagh where suppliers are currently being paid €5.25/kg.

The kill-out ranges from 50-56pc of live weight, with the typical carcase at under 30 months around 200kg on the factory line.

Sean says the breed is suited to marginal land, conservation grazing and organic farming.

"They are very hardy and will live outside with a bit of shelter, which is what they like; they are extremely healthy, and easy calving," he says.

"They finish very easily on grass, producing a marbled meat that is very much in demand and commanding a premium price which gives them a reasonable return even for their small carcase."

Sean Flannery
Sean Flannery

The average herd size is around 10 cows, according to a recent survey of the breed. Four year ago Sean became chairman of the Irish Dexter Breed Society.

Since then there has been a steady growth in the number of Irish herds registered. Having doubled over a three-year period to 170 in 2018, it is now up to 200 herds in the Republic.

"Last year there were 800 pure-breds registered and there would be quite a few pure-bred non-registered on the farms. This year we should hit 900 and by next year we should be registering 1,000," Sean says.

In October, the Dexter Society (UK and Ireland) AGM and conference was held in the Republic for the first time, in Kildare.

A dual-purpose 'poor man's cow' that has spread across the globe

Dexters were originally bred from Kerry and Mountain cattle in Tipperary by Christopher Dexter (1740-1801), and the breed has historically been known as the cottier's cow or poor man's cow.

They were easily kept on the acre of land which traditionally accompanied the cottier's house and provided an abundance of rich milk as well as a calf each year.

They sometimes grazed the 'long acre' (roadside verge) in times when motorised traffic was limited and kept the fences trimmed, as they like a variety of vegetation.

For this reason Dexters are used for conservation grazing in the UK and now in many parts of Ireland.

Described as a dual-purpose cow, the Dexter is native to Ireland, and like the Irish is to be found throughout the world, as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Cuba, Argentina, Canada and the USA, as well as Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Germany.

Dexters have made a remarkable revival over the last 25-30 years, aided by their ability to adapt to varying and extreme climatic conditions and to different systems of management. They are hardy animals, easily kept and capable of being fattened on grass.

They have been making a comeback in Ireland as a beef breed. A small breed with plenty of milk lends to being good sucklers and because of their size they are not severe on land; they like the outdoors in winter and like a wide variety of vegetation.

The beef is marbled with a succulent taste and is high in CLAs, Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9.

In his encyclopaedia on cattle breeds in Ireland, Greg Walsh writes that Christopher Dexter worked in Dublin and farmed at Brannackstown, Co Kildare.

His sister Elizabeth married Thomas Ellard near Pallasgreen on the Limerick-Tipperary border, where he established the Newtown Dexter herd during the 1770s.

Christopher was originally a sheep farmer, and the first historical reference to the Dexter cattle was around 1845 when he is referred to as agent to Lord Hawarden at Dundrum House, Co Tipperary.

Sean Flannery, chairman of the Irish Dexter Breed Society, says: "The Dexter practically died out in this country and there was only a few of the native Irish breed left on farms in the Burren and West Cork.

"Apart from that they had to be re-introduced to this country from the breed in the UK, where they had been introduced from the Irish herd in the 1880s."

In the early years they were registered with the Kerry breed in the same herd book in the UK. The Dexter split away from the Kerry around the early 1900s.

Sean adds: "From the UK they made their way to be established in several countries, while at the same time disappearing from Ireland."

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