Retired NASA employee works to bring back ‘extinct’ cattle 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. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Tracey Leftwich)

It’s been 10 years since Gene Bowen, a retired NASA employee, first set his sights on trying to restore a nearly-lost bloodline of Dexter cattle.

When the last documented red Dexter cow — a small, stout breed of cattle tracing back to Ireland — died nearly a decade ago, Bowen decided he would not let that rare, ginger-colored cow be the last of its kind in the United States.

Instead, Bowen, 78, hopes to make his farm in Dinwiddie County, Paradise Farm, the center of the American red Dexter restoration project.

And on March 8, a “jackpot” bull calf was born — named Titian of Paradise.

Titian does not have the coveted red coloring, but carries the gene for it, opening up the possibility for him to one day father a red calf.

When he is too old to continue breeding the animals and running his farm, Bowen will pass the torch to Tracey Leftwich, a deputy with the Williamsburg-James City County Sheriff’s Office and farm owner in New Kent.

“It’s just huge for the Legacy Dexter world,” said Leftwich, who already owns and breeds a different type of Dexter cattle.

Gene Bowen with two Dexter cattle. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Tracey Leftwich)
Gene Bowen with two Dexter cattle. (Souithside Daily/Courtesy of Tracey Leftwich)

Biology

Bringing back the red Dexter gene is a combination of luck and science.

When breeding animals, dominant and recessive genes come into play in most aspects of the breeding process: breeders need to know what recessive genes are desirable, what recessive genes are problematic and what animals can be bred together to attain desirable traits.

The red gene in Dexters is recessive, meaning two animals need to carry the red gene to create actually-red calf.

Even then, matching up two red-carrying cattle only has a 25 percent chance of creating a red-colored calf. The other times, the calf will be black and carry the red gene.

There are several different designations for Dexters, all of which: Legacy, traditional and modern.

Legacy Dexters are the focus of the American red Dexter restoration project, and can be genetically documented back as “purebred.”

Traditionals have an ancestor that was not properly documented in England because of the German bombardment in World War II. Traditionals represent a majority of Dexters.

Modern Dexters have been bred with other types of cattle.

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 (left), the last known red Legacy Dexter, and a bull owned by Gene Bowen named Brenn graze together. The photo was taken before Ms. Fermoy died about a decade ago. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Gene Bowen)

Saving embryos from the last red Legacy Dexter

Bowen began working to preserve the Irish Dexter breed of cattle in 2004, when the breed was considered rare and in danger of extinction.

At first, he worked to preserve the dwarf version of the Dexter, but in 2008, transitioned to trying to preserve the red gene.

It all started with Wee Gaelic Ms. Fermoy, the last known living red full-blooded Legacy Dexter in 2008.

“As far as we knew, she was the last one still alive in America,” Bowen said.

Because she was too old to successfully carry a calf, Bowen used preserved semen from a deceased red-carrying Legacy bull to fertilize Ms. Fermoy and create seven viable embryos to “flush” from her. One was taken and implanted in one of Bowen’s cows immediately, while the other six were frozen and stored.

After the embryos were created, the University of Georgia tried to replicate the process. They were unsuccessful, and put Ms. Fermoy down at age 19 sometime in 2009 or 2010, Bowen said.

The first embryo taken from Ms. Fermoy created Eve of Paradise, the cow that just gave birth to Titian, the “jackpot” bull calf.

As far as the others?

“Bad luck befell five of them,” Bowen said.

One of those embryos was implanted in one of Leftwich’s cows, Justice, who shed the embryo early in her pregnancy, Leftwich said. It was a huge disappointment.

The seventh and final embryo has been implanted in a cow named Olwen on Bowen’s farm.

Her calf is due Aug. 2.

Tracey Leftwich with her traditional Dexter cow, Justice. The cow received one of the coveted red-carrying embryos, but shed it unexpectedly last year. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Tracey Leftwich)
Tracey Leftwich with her traditional Dexter cow, Justice. The cow received one of the coveted red-carrying embryos, but shed it unexpectedly last year. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Tracey Leftwich)

Compromise

With so few red-carrying Dexters, Bowen has to make some compromises.

Titian is the product of a live-breeding between Eve, Ms. Fermoy’s embryo, and a red-carrying Legacy bull.

With Eve and Titian both having the recessive red gene, Bowen will soon be able to start breeding them together, with the hopes of creating a true red Dexter.

What about incest?

Generally, a son should not be bred back to his mother in bovine breeding, Bowen said.

“We call it line breeding when it works, and inbreeding when it doesn’t,” Bowen said. “It depends on the diversity of the genetics you’re dealing with.”

Extensive genetic testing and knowing the dominant and recessive traits of each animal can help alleviate concern of disabled or deformed offspring, Bowen said. Eve had two extra udders — not entirely unusual — hooves that are too long, and a type of milk resulting from a gene mutation.

Titian does not have those traits because he has a different father.

But, in reality, there’s no other choice.

“We either do this or give it up,” Bowen said. “When you’re dealing with an extinct feature here, and there’s only one cow left in the country that carries the red and has the pure ancestry … we don’t have a choice.”

Hope

Leftwich bred horses for more than 30 years before she decided to take on cows at her Lanexa farm, Fireman’s Run Farm.

She began looking into the Dexter breed about five years ago because they are both milk- and meat-producing cattle.

“I didn’t have a lot of money so I didn’t want to jump into this animal and say, ‘Oh, I should’ve started this other animal,’” Leftwich said. “They’re such a friendly breed, and they’re so easy to manage.”

Throughout the last five years, Leftwich has developed relationships with Bowen and other people preserving Dexters, including Judy Sponaugle in Maryland. Sponaugle allowed Bowen to take care of Ms. Fermoy in exchange for the embryo that became Eve of Paradise.

Together, Leftwich and her neighbor now have eight female traditional Dexter cows and two traditional bulls.

When Bowen decides it’s time, Leftwich will take on the red-carrying Dexter cattle. If a red calf has not yet been born by that time, that will become Leftwich’s ultimate goal.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at in this project without [Bowen] believing in me,” Leftwich said.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.