CULL….A Four-Letter Word?

April 29th, 2016 by Kim
Taquito is a nice looking steer calf...but not breeding material.

Taquito is a nice looking steer calf…but not breeding material.

Being a responsible Dexter breeder & breeding for improvement in your herd often requires culling animals that don’t measure up to the standard.  Unfortunately, it seems that some Dexter folks think cull is a four-letter cuss word.  They’d rather sell every single calf that hits the ground on their farm as registered breeding stock than even think about culling.  And that tendency is not doing the breed any favors.  The reality of breeding is that, no matter how excellent your breeding stock, some matings just don’t work out so well in the genetics gamble, and you end up with a poor quality calf.  Sometimes the best answer is simply “beef…it’s what’s for dinner”.

Thomas, at 6mo, showed great conformation, muscling & his sire's wonderful temperament. Just what we're looking for in a breeding bull.

Thomas, at 6mo, showed great conformation, muscling & his sire’s wonderful temperament. Just what we’re looking for in a breeding bull.

Bull calves are the most obvious, and most important, place to start with culling.  Cattle industry standard is that only the top 5-10% of your yearly bull calf crop should be retained, intact, as breeding stock.  The remaining 90-95% of your bull calves should be castrated & raised as beef each year.  It should only be the “best of the best” boys that are making the cut as breeding stock.  This is because a herd bull is 50% of your breeding program, and has a huge influence on the genetics of the herd.  Poor specimens simply don’t need to be in that position.  I think it’s safe to say that nobody’s herd consistently produces bull calves that are ALL high enough quality to be breeding stock, and yet you will notice some Dexter owners who register nearly every bull calf produced in their herd (certainly more than 10%), which raises questions in my mind.  The Dexter market is always flooded with young bulls people are trying to sell…instead of culling as they probably should.

Lucky has everything we want in a "bull mother": excellent structure, a lovely udder & a great temperament.

Lucky has everything we want in a “bull mother”: excellent structure, a lovely udder & a great temperament.

So, how does a breeder determine which bull calves remain as breeding stock?  I start by evaluating my cows….their conformation, disposition, and especially their udder.  For a cow to be considered as a “bull mother” she must meet a higher standard than I normally expect for my breeding cows.  If she doesn’t meet my minimum requirements for a “bull mother”, I simply will not keep a bull calf out of her, no matter how nice looking he is.  When a cow that meets the standard gives me a bull calf, then the next step is to evaluate the calf based on his own conformation, disposition and breeding equipment.  And I expect to see excellence if one of my boys will be kept for breeding.  That’s why I’ve only registered two in nine years of breeding!

The same traits that landed this scrawny heifer's dam in the freezer are getting her culled as well: bad conformation, too narrow, cow hocked & a poor disposition.

The same traits that landed this scrawny heifer’s dam in the freezer are getting her culled as well: bad conformation, too narrow, cow hocked & a poor disposition.

However, we don’t restrict our culling to only bull calves.  Sometimes we have more customer demand for beef than we have steers available, so that gives us the opportunity to clean out the bottom of the barrel in the heifer crop.  Yes, we’ve had some pretty poor quality heifers that I don’t want kept as breeding stock….I’d be embarrassed to have my name on them as breeder, so into the freezer they go.  It tastes the same as a steer, and is an equally good thing for the gene pool.  Once again, I use my evaluation system to score my heifers.  If one doesn’t meet my minimum standard for breeding stock, she gets raised as beef from the start.  Sometimes I don’t make the call on a lower-quality-but-possibly-OK heifer until after she’s calved the first time & I see her udder.

By culling in this way, only keeping the best bull calves & eliminating the worst heifers, you can improve your herd faster.  And selling Dexter beef is good for business, too!  So don’t be afraid to use this four-letter word.  It’s in the best interest of our breed.

Breeding a Better Dexter

March 30th, 2016 by Kim
Rousseau is a wonderful combo of beef & milk genetics, and consistently passes his docile, friendly disposition.

Rousseau is a wonderful combo of beef & milk genetics, and consistently passes his docile, friendly disposition.

A few months ago, I updated our “Breeding Program” page, adding a list of our breeding priorities here at Hope Refuge Farm.  Some people may think that having such high standards doesn’t matter unless you want show-quality animals, and that your average, “mediocre” Dexter is fine for merely utilitarian purposes.  Besides, a mediocre Dexter & a show-quality Dexter produce milk & beef that taste the same, right?  And, since some people may want just a pet or lawn ornament & that is a legitimate use for a mediocre Dexter as well, why should we bother trying to breed something “better”?

Lucky brings nearly faultless structure with exceptional depth, width & muscling to our breeding program.

Lucky brings nearly faultless structure with exceptional depth, width & muscling to our breeding program.

Well, let me tell you why I think it’s a good idea to breed a better Dexter.  For me, it’s not about show-quality vs. utilitarian so much as it about the Dexter breed reputation in the larger world of cattle.  I hear Dexters getting a lot of bad rap, and I’m sick & tired of it.  Unfortunately, a lot of that bad rap is well warranted, due to the large number of poor quality Dexters out there.  Serious beef people see pictures of ugly, poorly muscled young Dexter bulls for sale, and think the entire breed is a joke.  Folks who want a good, little family milk cow will get a cheap Dexter, and get frustrated with a cow that has a nasty temperament & kicks them into next week, has bad udder or teat structure making milking difficult, and has pathetic milk production to boot.  They sell the cow in disgust & tell everybody they know, “Don’t get a Dexter!”.

Janie, and her half-sister Sally, bring high volume milk production & excellent longevity from both their dams' & their sire's lines.

Janie, and her half-sister Sally, bring high volume milk production & excellent longevity from both their dams’ & their sire’s lines.

The Dexter breed also is not touted & promoted as lawn ornaments or pets.  They’re touted as being DUAL-PURPOSE…..and that means that most people expect them to be PRODUCTIVE.  The majority of folks interested in Dexters want an animal that can reliably provide beef and/or milk for their family.  When times get tough & money is tight, people will want a productive, useful animal that can truly pull it’s weight on the homestead.  Instead, we’ve got a large number of mediocre animals with poor production traits running around that have made the breed into the laughing-stock of the greater cattle world.  And though a mediocre, poorly muscled Dexter may taste the same as a “show-quality” one, you will clearly get more beef off one of them…and it won’t be the mediocre one.

Moonshine is a great example of a quality heifer calf - thick bodied throughout, with good structure & the makings of a nice udder.

Moonshine is a great example of a quality heifer calf – thick bodied throughout, with good structure & the makings of a nice udder.

Here at Hope Refuge, we are not interested in a showing career for our Dexters, though we may dabble with it now & then just to see how our animals compare with others.  Rather, we are interested in our Dexters producing quality milk & beef for our family & others.  We therefore want to breed quality, PRODUCTIVE animals that will live up to people’s (and our own!) expectations & the reputation the breed is supposed to have – that of dual-purpose production.  We are bringing in genetics for better muscling & beef traits, as well as bloodlines for higher milk production.  We are breeding for structurally sound animals that will hold up well for a long, productive breeding life…not so they can win at a show, but so they can do their “job” as well as possible.  We also strive to work with bloodlines that exhibit great longevity, so that we know that “keeping ability” is there to start with.  Of course, another part of breeding quality animals is culling the ones that don’t measure up, a practice we firmly believe in.

I am passionate about my Dexters, and part of that passion is breeding the absolute best animals I possibly can.  I always try to keep the best interest of the breed in mind, rather than my own best interest, or the interest others have in fads.  And while Dexters will never compete with beef breeds for beef production, nor with dairy breeds for milk production, they should be an excellent combination of milk & beef for small-scale, niche market production.  And that is why I want to breed a better Dexter!

Leaping Into Spring…

February 28th, 2016 by Kim

…with two big announcements!

Mrald Perfect Lil Milkman straws are now available for AI!

Mrald Perfect Lil Milkman

Mrald Perfect Lil Milkman

We are delighted to make this fine young bull available to breeders across the country, just in time for the 2016 breeding season.  When seeing photos of him, a very knowledgeable long-time Dexter breeder commented,
“WOW – great length, good hook to pin distance, clean sheath attachment, indicates excellent meat yield, lots of milk in the background, testicles indicate good udder attachment, epididymous large so very fertile, wide muzzle, good feet.  Nothing missing in this boy!”
Makes us proud!  You can find details on our “Semen Sales” page.

I am back on the ADCA Board of Directors as the Region 9 Director.

Chad Williams resigned, and apparently I was the only one that stepped forward & said I would be willing to take his place.  So if you are in PA, MD, DE, KY, WV, or VA, I’m the one for you to contact if you have questions, concerns, or things you’d like to see happen in the Association.  I am happy to be able to serve the Region 9 members in this capacity again & look forward to meeting & talking to many of you.  I’m leaping back in!

 

How I Share-Milk

January 20th, 2016 by Kim
Bo & Thumbelina can see each other through the gate, so they don't get too upset about the separation.

Bo & Thumbelina can see each other through the gate, so they don’t get too upset about the separation.

We had a fine start to our 2016 calving season when BoPeep kicked off the New Year with a lovely little heifer, Thumbelina, on Jan. 5.  The dreaded milk rationing that happens during Bo’s dry period is over, and the natives are rejoicing in the abundance of milk again.  I’ve been at this share-milking thing for a good while now, and looking back over my previous milking posts, I realized I do things a bit differently now.  Through trial & error over the years, I’ve found a share-milking routine that I & my cows are quite happy with, so this seemed like a good time to share it here.

If you’re not already familiar with the term, “share-milking” refers to the practice of leaving the calf with the cow part-time, so that you’re sharing the milk with the calf, usually milking only once a day.  There are many different ways to share-milk, as different things work for different people in different situations, and so you just have to figure out what works best for you & your cow.  This is the method that works best for me. Read more »

Giving Thanks on the Farm

November 25th, 2015 by Kim

As we come upon this Thanksgiving holiday, I find we have so much to be thankful for here on the farm…some of them being things that maybe most people don’t get to experience.

"Thanksgiving", the turkey

“Thanksgiving”, the turkey

We actually, unfortunately, didn’t put any effort into the turkey breeding season this spring, and didn’t get nest boxes set up for the hens until much too late.  In spite of that, Millie managed to hatch out & raise one nice poult for us.  And we are very thankful for that one, because I don’t think we’ll ever be able to eat a commercially raised turkey again now that we know what “real” turkey is supposed to taste like.  The poult was immediately dubbed “Thanksgiving”, and she grew into a nice little bird who lived well until yesterday, the Tuesday before the holiday.

Jeff was off work, so it was butchering day.  We only had the one bird to do, and I had heard people say that dry-plucking is easier/nicer than scalding & doing it wet, so I decided to try it instead of setting up all the normal equipment.  Yeah…well…if anybody ever tries to tell you that dry-plucking is easier…DON’T LISTEN!  We got most of the larger body, tail & wing feathers off fairly quickly, only to find that she was covered in pin feathers too, and the smaller feathers on the wings & legs were not coming out easily at all.  I soon decided I was ready to see if the tap water in my milking parlor was hot enough to scald a bird.  I didn’t even take the time to bother with a pot, I just plunked her in the clean sink & ran wide-open-hot tap water over the carcass.  I knew my water out there was really hot but never measured a temperature on it.  Thankfully, I can now report that it is indeed “scalding hot”.  Soon those remaining feathers were easily removed, and I had a nice, clean bird.  Good to know. Read more »