Monday, February 6, 2023

Retired NASA employee’s quest to bring back ‘extinct’ cattle close to unlocking next piece of the puzzle

A Dexter cow at Paradise Farm in Dinwiddie County is expected a calf, which could be another piece to the puzzle to restore the Legacy red Dexter breed. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gene Bowen)
A Dexter cow at Paradise Farm in Dinwiddie County is expected a calf, which could be another piece to the puzzle to restore the Legacy red Dexter breed. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gene Bowen)

There may be more than one reason to celebrate Independence Day this year at Paradise Farm in Dinwiddie County.

The farm, the epicenter of the American red Dexter cattle restoration project, is expecting a new calf to be born any day now, farm owner Gene Bowen said. 

And that calf could be the key to restoring the red Dexter in America, a small, stocky, ginger-colored breed of cattle from Ireland that no longer has any known living counterparts.

“Olwen is stubbornly hanging on to that calf,” Bowen said of the cow carrying the new calf. Jams Greenbrier Olwen is due between June 29 and July 2.

Bowen, a retired NASA employee and cattle breeder, has been slowly trying to bring back the Legacy red Dexter since 2004, when the breed was considered rare and in danger of extinction.

If he doesn’t breed a red Dexter before he retires, Bowen will hand the project over to a New Kent farmer, Tracey Leftwich.

The calf is the product of a carefully preserved embryo that has been stored since 2008. The calf’s mother and father are both dead, and were respectively born 28 and 35 years ago. 

Olwen, owned by and on loan from a farmer named Cathy Vaden, was implanted last September with the last of seven preserved embryos that carry the red Dexter gene.

Male or female? Bowen hopes for a heifer, which would be able to replace an existing red-carrying Dexter named Eve.

But perhaps, it could be a young, red-carrying bull. Dexters are known not to give birth on their due dates.

“Nine times out of 10, they’ll have the calf at night,” Bowen said. “It’s like coming down for Christmas morning.”

Ms. Fermoy and a bull owned by Gene Bowen named Brenn graze together. The photo was taken before Ms. Fermoy died about a decade ago. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gene Bowen)
Ms. Fermoy and a bull owned by Gene Bowen named Brenn graze together. The photo was taken before Ms. Fermoy died about a decade ago. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Gene Bowen)

Ms. Fermoy’s children

The key to bringing back a red Dexter — a cow named Wee Gaelic Ms. Fermoy — died about 10 years ago.

Ms. Fermoy was the last known red Legacy Dexter in the country. 

But, with a little help from science, Ms. Fermoy lives on. Bowen used preserved semen from a dead red-carrying Legacy bull to fertilize Ms. Fermoy’s eggs one last time in 2008. Seven embryos were extracted from Ms. Fermoy, and squirreled away for future use. 

RELATED STORY: Retired NASA employee works to bring back ‘extinct’ cattle breed — and its future could be just north of Williamsburg

The new calf is the seventh and final embryo. The other six embryos had varying fates: one produced Bowen’s Dexter cow Eve, while bad luck befell the other five.

Eve will be bred with other red-carrying Dexters to hopefully produce a red-colored calf. 

The seventh embryo, if a female, would eventually replace 9-year-old Eve as breeding cow.

In the future, Bowen may also fertilize Eve’s embryos with another red-carrying Dexter then flush them to save for future use, but he’s not ready yet because she is still able to breed.

Gene Bowen with Eve of Paradise and her new calf, Titian of Paradise. Titian was born March 8, 2019 and carries a gene for red coloring. His birth means Bowen would potentially breed a red Legacy Dexter in the future. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Tracey Leftwich)
Gene Bowen with Eve of Paradise and her new calf, Titian of Paradise. Titian was born March 8, 2019 and carries a gene for red coloring. His birth means Bowen would potentially breed a red Legacy Dexter in the future. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Tracey Leftwich)

Hitting the ‘jackpot’

As with all mammals, making a baby requires a male. In this case, that means a bull that carries the red gene.

This year has been plentiful for Paradise Farm. On March 8, a “jackpot” bull calf was born with black fur and the red gene. His mother is Eve, and both his parents carry the red gene.

The calf is named Titian of Paradise, and is now almost four months old. 

When Titian grows old enough, he will be bred back to Eve and perhaps create a red Dexter. In the cattle breeding world, incest isn’t necessarily problematic.

Bowen said Titian is growing up to be “a nice one,” with a solid, well-angled build.

While the excitement is mounting for the birth of Ms. Fermoy’s final embryo, Bowen does not plan to intervene with any special measures such as inducing labor. Veterinarians have many of the same tools as obstetricians, but Bowen prefers not to use them.

Olwen is showing some signs of pending labor: her udders are filling with milk and the teats are changing shape.

“We run the whole farm as naturally as possible,” he said. “I interfere as little as possible.”

But maybe — just maybe — the new calf will be born ahead of Sunday, when some Dexter farmers from Iowa roll into town to drop off some Dexters to another farmer. About 17 Dexter farmers are coming to visit Bowen as a sort of gathering.

It’s a small community, and the birth or a red-carrying Dexter is something to celebrate, Bowen said.

The Bowens haven’t yet come up with a name, but hope to relate it to the Bible.

“Every morning I go out anticipating I’m gonna find a new calf,” Bowen said. “Every morning so far, I’m disappointed.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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