2018 Orientation: Asia Simone Burns

Asia Burns

Small cows may make a big difference
by Asia Simone Burns

Video: Dexter cattle

NASHVILLE, Tenn.–Most cattle farmers would be elated to see their cows give birth to large, hefty calves. However, Emily Hayes rejoices over the smaller ones.

Hayes, 27, a graduate research assistant at the animal physiology laboratory at Tennessee State University’s Institute of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Research, is part of a TSU team studying cattle production and the breeding of Dexter cattle.

An Irish breed, Dexter cattle are used for both milk and meat. They are small, about two-thirds the size of Angus cattle. Their stature is due to a form of a genetic condition linked to dwarfism, called chondrodysplasia. The condition affects bone growth and results in animals with short legs and heavy bodies.

Dexter bulls Buddy and Norville graze on the TSU farm. (Photo: Asia Simone Burns)

“Typically, Dexter males weigh about 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, whereas the average Angus bull can weigh a ton,” Hayes said. In height, Dexter cattle come up to the waist of an average-size, full-grown man.

But these tiny cows can impact small-scale beef production in a big way because they require fewer resources – land, food and water – to meet their needs than larger breeds, Hayes said.

Typically in Angus production, one calf-cow pair needs about two acres to support it. But a Dexter calf-cow pair needs only about one acre, she says, leading to a more favorable “stocking rate.”

“They eat less than the standard cattle would need, so they require less acreage to sustain them,” Hayes added. “For small-time producers that is a big difference when they want to sell meat but don’t have the land requirements.”

Hayes noted that none of the TSU cattle has chondrodysplasia. Each animal was bred from one parent carrying only one copy of the recessive gene and one parent carrying no copies, resulting in calves that are small but healthy.

TSU graduate research assistant Emily Hayes tends to a herd of cattle. (Photo: Asia Simone Burns)

Just how the gene impacting smallness is passed down in cattle is something Hayes and her team are studying. Most of the cows at the research farm were pregnant, and May was calving season. The newborns would likely weigh 35 pounds to 50 pounds, about the size of a full-grown female golden retriever, and give Hayes and her team a new herd of Dexter calves to measure, study and tend to.

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