The Farming Independent

posted Dec 5, 2019, 9:08 AM by Ciaran Culkin   [ updated Dec 26, 2020, 11:14 AM ]

The Group is grateful to The Farming Independent for permission to reprint the item which was published on Tuesday Nov 19th, 2019. Thanks also to the author Martin Ryan and photographer Steve Humphries.

Dexters-the lucrative little wonders of the 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

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

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

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

"It is 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 is that we have not enough of it to meet the demand" he says.

It is not just the price of the meat that makes Dexter 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. Dexter are 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 Dexter herd on his limited lands at Donadee, Co Kildare 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 1950's. "I always had a great interest in farming and I went to agricultural college at Clonakilty in the sixties but  then I went into the nursery business" explained Sean who is now retired from the nursery business and devotes his time to looking after his Dexters.

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

Sean always had an interest in rare breeds and had kept both 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.

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.  ABP is exporting the Dexter beef to Belgium where a steady market has been developed at a premium price.

The kill-out can 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 extremely 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". The average herd is currently around ten cows according to a recent survey of the breed.

Four years 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 purebreds registered, and there would be quite a few purebred 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 for the first time Kildare. The meeting had added significance for Sean Flannery when the attendance included David Williams breeder of the stock bull on his farm, Gaveston Normandie who asked to see the Kildare herd. "Gaveston Normandie is an exceptionally good Dexter bull  originally imported by another breeder, when David Williams travelled with the bull to Ireland and has recently sold Dexter bulls to Switzerland" explained Sean.

"I bought Gaveston Normandie in 2014 from another breeder getting out, Pierce Dunne, Athy and the first animals for my herd came from Basil Velentine, Two Mile House, Naas, owner of the Flemington Herd" he added.