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Polled Dexter Cattle A Brief History

The origins of Dexter cattle are muddled in the history of time. Even writings from the early 1900’s cannot agree on where or how the Dexter breed originated. There has always been much speculation about the history of this little breed of house cattle. One topic of more recent disagreement is the origins of polled dexter cattle. Some people in the dexter community are now claiming that dexter cattle always had polled genetics. This author believes what is known is better than unfounded hypotheses and hyperbole. Let us explore what is known, what we can ascertain, and how we can move forward.

Dexter cattle were originally described as a horned breed. The original breed standards do not dissuade us from this belief. The original breed standard states, “Horns.-These should be short and moderately thick, springing well from the head, with an inward and slightly upward curve.” Many would call this inclusion in the breed standard proof that the breed was exclusively horned, some do not.

Wilson in The Origins of the Dexter-Kerry Breed of Cattle discusses how Dexter and Kerry cattle were bred together prior to the creation of the Kerry and Dexter Herd Book, by the Royal Dublin Society in 1890. He spends a fair amount of time discussing how the creation of this herd book nearly destroyed the dexter breed specifically due to number of calves that did not survive Dexter to Dexter matings. We now know that this fault is likely due to BD1 Chondrodysplasia and likely PHA. Which are easily tested for genetic mutations. BD1 was first described in dexter cattle and likely the reason for its founding. I digress; we are talking about the history of horns!

Lots of breeding and politics happened within the world and Dexter cattle did not go unscathed throughout humanities tumultuous history. We are mainly focusing on the history of polled Dexters in North America the width and breadth of Dexter history in other countries can be challenging to discover and in many ways is irrelevant to our story. Prior to 1980s there were very few Dexter cattle imported into the US with the first recorded imports taking place from Ireland between 1900 and 1915. These were the only dexter cattle in the United States until the 1950s when dexter cattle were imported into the United States from England. Without going into detail about all of the different imports we will skip ahead to the import of semen from the first polled bull in the US, Saltaire Platinum.

The bull which every living polled dexter in the United States descends from was Saltaire Platinum. Many straws of his semen were imported in 1994. We are able to trace his recorded lineage quite easily through old herd books which have been uploaded into the Legacy Dexter Cattle Registry database. Saltaire’s sire Migh Poldark was polled. Poldark received his polled genetics from his dam Godstone Esmeralda born 5-5-1984. Many concerns have arisen about Esmeralda’s actual lineage. It is not impossible that she had a novel mutation causing her to be polled; however, it is extremely unlikely. Godstone Esmeralda’s registered dam is Broadridge Dawn a black dehorned cow. The farm that bred Godstone Esmeralda had another calf born the same week as Esmeralda. This heifer calf was born out of Finney Jubilee and named Godstone Emily, born 5-11-1984 (Appendix C, DCS # 242). Finney Jubilee was a black cow without horns registered through the Dexter Cattle Society’s appendix registry. Her dam’s sire is noted as being a horned shorthorn bull named Swinson Grange Challenger. Finney Jubilee’s dam was named Vycanny Orphan Annie. She was of unknown lineage and was likely polled. No information regarding her lineage was displayed in the DCS herd book record. The likelihood that these two calves born on the same farm within the same week were switched by their dams is much higher than a spontaneous mutation causing polledness. Both are possible but only one is reasonably likely.

If we need further proof, at least one association from across the pond has taken a stance on this subject. The Dexter Cattle Society on their website states, “Dexters are a horned breed. Polling within the breed is not as a result of a mutation. It has been introduced from two principal sources, Aberdeen Angus and Red Poll.” In the United States we have three registries and the only one to openly take a similar stance is The Legacy Dexter Cattle Registry. The Purebred Dexter Cattle Association as well as The American Dexter Cattle Association have not made a formal stand other than that these dexters are registrable under current rules and considered of equal merit to horned dexters.

Now the “opinion.” You may have been a part of the Dexter world for 50 years or 50 minutes but regardless, you as well as I, have opinions about our dear wee cattle. In reality many things could happen and indeed have already happened within the registries to make statuses for horned versus polled dexter cattle. There are some breeders who have specifically preserved lines of dexter cattle that do not have Saltaire Platinum in their pedigree. There are yet other breeders that have worked to preserve lines of dexter cattle with no known or suspected outcrosses. Many of these breeders in the US identify as Legacy or Traditional Breeders and register their cattle with the Legacy Dexter Cattle Registry.

Polled Dexter cattle are here to stay. It is a folly to believe they will ever be removed from the National herd. Today there are very few cattle without polled genetics somewhere in their lineage. That is ok, polled genetics have their place in this breed like they do in every other breed and often make Dexter cattle more marketable. As a farmer, that is owned by more than my fair share of these wonderful creatures, I am glad I can breed the type of Dexter that makes me happy. I wish the same for others and their endeavors. I know that there has been much anguish and anger about this subject over the years. I would like us to come together and work to share our wonderful cattle with the world.

Let’s take it a step further for preservation. I do not believe that the merits of horned or polled should be weighed against one another as there are different strokes for different folks. I personally would love for the United States Dexter breed associations (PDCA & ADCA) to adopt a preservation category much like Legacy. I think there is value in preserving the Dexter cattle of the past, for the future; especially as the breed continues to change. Progress for progress’ sake can be admired. Having a firm base of history should also be admired. I want to urge the associations to designate a historical designation much like the United Kingdom does. In the UK Dexter cattle without upgrades or known appendix cattle in their lineage are described as OP or Original Pedigree. A designation such as this would move us closer as breeders and would start to break down some of the barriers that created the need for three registries.



         This article was written by Ryan A. Thatcher owner and operator of 2 Men & A Hen. Sharing for educational discussion is allowed. Do not edit or take abstracts without written permission. All concerns or complaints should be visible to the public and all discussions resulting from this article should allow open friendly discourse. Dexter breeders need to understand the history of the breed without all of the hyperbole spread on social media.


Thank you for reading.

Ryan A. Thatcher


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