The Digweed family has proved it is possible to build an award-winning herd while also juggling a busy work and home life. Hannah Noble finds out more...
Dexters have long been thought of as the perfect breed of cattle for smallholders.
For Les and Abbie Digweed, who both have careers away from their four-hectare (10-acre) smallholding based in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, their passion for the breed began in 2008, with the investment in five pedigree Dexter females to create their Tooloos herd.
Mrs Digweed, a freelance florist, grew up at Kingcomb Farm, where her father bred racehorses.
When the horses left, the land became redundant and Mrs Digweed went on to join her husband’s dream of raising cattle on the farm.
Mr Digweed, who now works in agricultural groundworks, had previously been a stockman on a beef unit and missed being around cows.
He says: “Before deciding to invest in cattle, we did extensive research and visited the Royal Three Counties Show to look at different breeds and the Dexter ticked all the boxes. Beef was the main selling point, but we also thought we could have fun showing and they fitted into the smallholding.”
Mr Digweed explains meat from the herd is sold to family and friends in boxes containing one eighth of an animal and usually average about £165 a box.
He says: “We cannot keep up with demand for our meat boxes. Butchers love the meat, but we are not big enough to guarantee a year-round supply.”
Descendants of Irish Kerry cattle, Dexters are thought to have first been introduced into England in 1882. Some even say due to their small stature and dual purpose nature, they were used on ships to provide fresh milk and meat for sailors.
Unfortunately, shortly after the acquisition of their new herd, the Digweeds failed their annual TB test and lost three of the original five cows.
They made the decision to reinvest the compensation gained from the loss and bought Langley End Morisia from the Creasey family’s Langley End herd, Cambridgeshire.
Mr Digweed says: “People thought we were mad paying so much money for a heifer, but we knew she was going to be the foundation cow of our herd and she has paid for herself several times over.”
The Tooloos herd now comprises eight breeding females and a bull called Langley End Malus, which recently replaced Wise Harris Hawk, the sire of every cow on the farm apart from Morisia.
When breeding or looking to buy Dexters, the principles are the same as for any full-size cattle.
Mrs Digweed says: “With the cows, we are looking for good depth of body, a good cover of condition and a strong topline.
“Locomotion is a big thing with the breed. Because of the achondroplasia gene which causes their dwarfism, they sometimes get issues with twisted feet and legs so it is really important they can walk properly.”
“The key is to buy bulls from female lines with good udders and we pride ourselves in producing cows with good udders.”
Dexters are famed for their dwarfism, but the Digweeds explain it is important not to cross a short legged bull with a short-legged female, as there is the chance of abortion and premature bulldog calves.
Mrs Digweed says: “When we got into showing Dexters, all the people were so nice and the society was brilliant. Everyone was really helpful and friendly.
“We did not have a clue what we were doing, but they took us under their wings.”
The family has now been showing since 2010 along with the help of 13-year-old niece, Lois Taylor, and four-year-old son, Tommy.
One of their showing highlights was Morisia winning the Lady Loder Perpetual Challenge Trophy at the very first national Dexter show at Newbury Show in 2011, taking the title of best wet cow and overall Dexter champion from an entry of 124 animals.
Dexter cattle are shown as a dual purpose breed, so their milking ability as well as their beef traits, are under scrutiny in the ring.
In order to show them looking their best with full udders, the calf must be taken off the cow the night before the show and preparation for this starts within the first few weeks after calving.
Mr Digweed says: “We start taking the calves off the cows each day at about three weeks old, but they get chance to feed in the morning and evening. This helps stretch the udder and gets the cow and calf ready for separation.
“It is not easy to get the udders right, and this is Abbie’s domain.”
Mrs Digweed says: “You have to make sure the calf is drinking from each quarter of the udder equally to keep it even, and this can be tricky. Otherwise the cow will start to produce more milk in some quarters than others.”
Morisia, now 12 years old, has also claimed the title of top wet cow in the country which is calculated from points accumulated from shows over the season.
Its daughter, Tooloos Freesia, has been just as successful, scooping the championship title at this year’s Bath and West Show and also winning the country’s best wet cow honours twice.
In 2017, Lois was champion dual purpose young handler at the Royal Three Counties show, and 2019 marked the start of Tommy’s showing career with a third place with his calf, Tooloos Mayblossom, at the Royal Bath and West Show. The Tooloos herd has also won the Bertodano shield for the herd with the most points from shows over the season.
Recently, the family has branched out and invested in 15 Berrichon sheep from Tom and Ben Stayt, Chipping Norton.
Mr Digweed says: “The sheep are Tommy’s and we are looking to sell tups as well as show them, as they seem to be becoming more popular with commercial farmers.
“One of the most important things is creating a future for Tommy and Lois to grow up with animals.
“Dexters are a great start for youngsters and teaches them to handle cattle properly.”