Raising Dexter Cattle in PEI by Kathy Birt

Kathy Birt

Mike and Evelyn Lafortune have the largest herd of Dexter cattle in Canada. Located in North Milton, Prince Edward Island, they have found a niche market for their organic beef.

As Mike declares: “These cows are easy to please.” They feed on no less than 12 grasses and legumes on the 200-acre farm that was Evelyn’s since 2009 – and then she met Mike in Halifax in 2014. Mike had given us his ranch in Colorado where he had raised Dexters for 24 years, and moved back to Canada. He missed the Dexter herd and so it was easy to answer when Evelyn asked, “What do you want to do?” after they’d settled in together on the PEI farm. He wanted Dexters, so they went on a cross-Canada hunt for a herd. “We bought the first five in Nova Scotia by most came from farms in Ontario and Quebec. We bought breeding stock and built our herd from within.

These cows grow to just 36 inches in height, compared to the 46 to 48 inches other cows grow. They usually weigh about 750 pounds at slaughter time. The bulls weigh about 1000 pounds and are about 40 to 42 inches in height. Mike says they are very particular about genetics in their herd. “There is no inbreeding. This is done to gain different traits, one of them being docility.”

The docile animals are low maintenance and they are not given antibiotics, hormones, or supplements of any kind. No chemicals had been sprayed on the North Milton property for years, and so it was certified organic in 2015 by an international company called Ecocert.

The 100 cows on the acreage are kept in four different herds and they are rotated as they forage. They live on grass and hay, use mineral salt licks and have free-sided sheds for shelter. “If the grass is no longer lush and green, they put up a fuss, so we know when to move them around,” notes the experienced rancher, who is originally from Sudbury, Ontario.

The couple produce their own hay in round and square bales and also buy some certified organic hay from another farmer. “We just can’t produce enough ourselves,” Mike points out.

To ensure the animals get the proper grasses, all pastures are enclosed with electric fencing. But that doesn’t mean the cows are not pampered. There are pathways throughout the treed areas to provide shade in hot weather and shelter from winter storms. “They are trained to go to another pasture,” Mike says, explaining that once the cows have a pasture grazed down, they will come back to the point of origin and graze off freshly grown grass. The time span for their rotation would be about 60 days.

The grasses they eat include white clover grass, timothy, orchard grass, hairy vetch, brome, red clover, alfalfa and a few others. The Dexter farmer says that all adds to the f lavour of the popular organic meat. They also graze on fescue, a fine grass with narrow deep green blades used for grazing in the cooler, shaded areas. “All grasses have the same nutrients,” notes Mike, adding that the property has a 25-foot buffer zone so there is no risk of contamination from other farms in the surrounding areas.

Shedding and growing a coat for the seasons, Dexters are outdoors all year, making them an easy animal to care for, with no huge barn space required. “We have the free-sided sheds and keep them closer to the house area during winter months,” says Mike and quickly adds, “The beauty of these cattle is that they have been around since the Celts in Ireland.”

He also notes the cows can calf on their own with no assistance. They give birth in one hour and within another hour, that calf is standing, walking and following the mother. “If one is calving in a blizzard we would check on it to make sure the calf and cow are safe.”

While Mike and Evelyn are usually too busy to milk, they have a couple of cows in the herd trained to milk. “If a cow has milk, we just separate it from the calf for a night and then milk it, and there is plenty left for the calf. We just milk when we want some for ourselves,” explains Mike. While the couple could be offered a lot of money for the milk, they just make cheese and butter with a 4 to 5 percent fat count.

With all his cattle experience, becoming a PEI farmer came easily to Mike. As for Evelyn, he proudly says while she has horses and had never been around cows, she is eagerly learning about them daily and is as involved as he is.

“I do all the milking on the farm and we have a small milking machine,” notes Evelyn. She makes all their cheese and butter. “It doesn’t matter who does what work. It’s really all 50-50,” notes Evelyn enthusiastically. Evelyn also delivers the meat while continuing to work as a respiratory therapist, travelling around the Island doing home care.

Naming all the animals is a family affair. “We name some, the [adult] kids and grandchildren name some. And we have friends naming some of them as well,” notes Evelyn. “All names are registered because this is a purebred breed and the Dexter herd has been classified as a heritage breed.”

Ensuring the animals are well fed and watered is paramount to having a good quality product for all the customers on the farm roster. “Most of the pastures have underground water lines with water hydrants and automatic waterers. The more remote areas of the ranch are delivered water using a UTV [utility task vehicle],” says Mike. He adds that it takes a lot of money and work to get taps to all pastures, “So those that don’t have taps, I drive to the pastures with water tanks filling up watering barrels.”

The animals are taken to Shaw Meats for slaughtering and this begins in late spring. Robert Shaw, who recently sold the business to his nephew Jeffery Shaw, has nothing but good things to say about Mike and Evelyn and their Dexter herd. “Their operation is second to none,” he says. “They do daily maintenance and follow the organic program to the max.”

Robert Shaw has been processing the Dexter animals since late 2016. He has butchered them at all ages and notes there is no difference in the meat, whereas a traditional breed meat from an older animal might primarily go to ground beef. “The Dexter is always good quality meat no matter what the age.”

Dexter Cows – Photos: Michel A. Lafortune

He speaks of the Lafortunes and their Dexter herd with respect and admiration, saying, “It takes a long time to get an operation like that up and running—it’s expensive—everything they buy is organic and the animals are fed on all grasses and they have done it,” says Shaw. He points out with other breeds about 18 months is the turnaround time to slaughter, but with the Dexter herd it can be longer than two years, “Always well worth the effort,” Shaw says.

The North Milton couple operates their business on a Consumer Supported Agriculture or CSA basis and receive half the money in February and March and the remainder in early June. “The first meat boxes go out near the end of June. We package all the meat ourselves and it is vacuum packed,” explains Mike. This ensures all safety measures are intact.

The meat is delivered to all their CSA customers all over the province, taking it right to the customer’s freezer. “We are with the animal from birth to freezer,” says Mike. “While we have our beef CSA customers, we also have retail customers including tourists from other provinces and states.” So the Dexter cattle farm also makes some farm gate sales.

Different customers want different cuts of meat and those are delivered. “Some ask for roasts, steaks, burgers, ribs, etc.,” explains Mike and quickly adds, “We sell 90 percent of the animal.” Nothing is left out. The heart, tail and even the bones for broth are used from these unique-to-the-Island animals.

At $8 per pound, and 40 customers on the waiting list, it is perhaps an agricultural market others will want to get into. “We sell locally to other farmers and that includes breeding stock, such as bulls, calves and bred heifers,” Mike explains.

The animals are bred from July 15th to September 30th. Mike says all cows are bred during that period, adding “We are adamant about no inbreeding or line breeding. We have the entire pedigree of each animal going back 12 generations.”

“Each cow is selected to be with a particular bull, based on factors such as breeding lineage, body conformation, colour, horns or pooled, as well as overall character.” With four breeding bulls on the farm and their diligence about genetics, Mike says, “We are the Match.com of cattle.