History of American Milking Devon Cattle
A Handbook to the Breeds of the World
by Valerie Porter


Rich 'ruby' red. Middle-horned. Beef, early maturing. Fine-boned, thin-skinned, thick mossy coat (often curly). Very hardy and active. Northern Devon (southwest England).

This very old and handsome breed should be a great deal more valued than it is, though it is much better appreciated overseas than at home, especially in hotter climates. Centred around Exmoor in northern Devon, where the climate is wet and humid, with cold, rough winters and an exposed environment, this was the dominant breed of Devon and Somerset for several centuries. Its colour used to range from yellowish or tawny to dark red, but the red was always preferred and the breed is now characteristically 'ruby red' - a dark but bright blood colour - and it has long been known as the Ruby of the West. In summer the coat tends to become dappled with darker spots. The muzzle is flesh-coloured and, like other red breeds, there is a slightly lighter colouring around the eyes. The pigmented skin is yellow-orange, and the dark eye-rims are a considerable asset in tropical climates in which the skin pigmentation also protects the udder against harm from solar radiation.

The middle-length waxy horns are dark at the tips and grown outwards, curving slightly downwards on the bull but spreading gracefully and turning upwards towards the ends on the cow.

Fine-boned, fine-limbed and agile, it is well adapted to the uplands and moorlands of Devon where it has the ability to convert poor grazing into excellent beef. Originally bred as a draught animal, its milk has always been known for its quality (if not quantity) and it can fairly be called a dual-purpose breed. The size of the neat, compact body is deceptive: the Devon can weigh more than a Hereford or Beef Shorthorn. It is an early maturing breed and popular as a terminal sire on dairy heifers: the typical Devon calf weighs about 40kg at birth. The cows calves easily and are good mothers, with plenty of milk to rear a good calf and with good fertility.

In the eighteenth century the Devon began to spread from its western kingdom and the well-known livestock engraver, Garrard, described it as almost the most perfect breed in Britain. At that time it was very similar to the modern Devon in conformation and colour: Garrard's engraving in 1800 showed a dark red Devon ox standing 152cm at the withers, but the bull was 135cm and the cow 119cm - similar to the 'Suffolk Polled' at the time but smaller than the Hereford and Sussex (each about 142cm/130cm).

It was probably Thomas William Coke (later the Earl of Leicester) of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, on the other side of England, who did most to introduce the Devon elsewhere. This famous agriculturalist, influenced by the Duke of Bedford and dismissive of the Norfolk and Suffolk breeds that later combined to become the Red Poll, brought the small, thrifty Devons to his estates, where he was already known for experimenting with sheep such as the Southdown, the Norfolk Horn and Bakewell's new Leicester.

Coke was at Holkham from 1776 to 1842. He found that the Devon, although it was small, gave him good quantities of good beef and rather lower quantities of very creamy milk. His herd numbered up to 200 head, including working bullocks used on the estates until local prejudice combined with shoeing difficulties encouraged him to abandon them for working horses. The Devon herd, however, remained well known throughout the nineteenth century. Coke died in the 1840s and a monument was erected to him at Holkham, guarded by a cudding Devon cow carved in stone. A model farm was built for the herd in 1850 but after 1870 the herd's size was never more than 100. It was from Holkham that the first Devons were commercially exported to the USA, though in fact the Pilgrim Fathers, who set sail from Plymouth, took some Devons with them in the seventeenth century. In about 1800, a bull and two heifers from the Duke of Bedford's herd had been exported to southern Africa in order to improve the weak, long-legged local oxen.

Late in the eighteenth century a distinguished West of England breeder called James White Parsons experimented to create a new breed by crossing his Devons with French and Indian cattle of unspecified breed. After several years he displayed the results in London in 1804 but said himself that the calves at one month old were 'as fat as quails', though he declared that in due course the hide, flesh, milk and tallow would be of superior quality and value. No more was heard of the breed, but more than a century later the Devon was very carefully crossed with Indian zebus to contribute to the creation of hot-climate breeds such as the Jamaica Red, the Bravon, the Makaweli and the Santa Gabriela, and it also helped to improve some of the Japanese breeds. Despite its Exmoor origins, the Devon has proved as tolerant of hot climates as it is of cold wet ones and is now reared extensively in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Brazil and Jamaica. This ability to tolerate the heat has encouraged imaginative claims that it is linked with Indian cattle brought to southwest England on Indian trading boats long, long ago, and others suggest a link with the Salers of France.

Early in the nineteenth century the Devon was shipped to Tasmania and was exported to mainland Australia at intervals during the century until health restrictions put an end to imports. It has had more than a century and a half to prove its worth in the demanding environments of Queensland, New South Wales and even the hot, dry north west of Western Australia. In nineteen-century Queensland it was claimed that Devons produced as much beef per acre as Herefords or Shorthorns and also produced a good proportion of lean meat to fat when crossed with the Shorthorn.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Devon was finding a warm welcome in the American West; there cattlemen associated red coats with good, profitable beef and the Devon bulls proved invaluable on ranches where endurance and the ability to travel in search of water and grazing were essential. They produced an excellent cross on the native Texan cattle. In 1919 the first of the Rubies landed in Brazil and there have been regular importations ever since.

Some of the English herd used to be milked in spite of the concentration on work and beef, but on the whole the Devon's old milking traits have been neglected. However, the original stock which accompanied the Pilgrim Fathers from the Devon port of Plymouth in 1623 to provide them with milk, butter and cheese on the voyage continued to give them dairy produce (not to mention beef and boot leather) when they colonised the land. There is still a breed known as the Milking Devon in Massachusetts which is very close to the original seventeenth-century type and a valuable reserve of the old genes. There is also a popular Polled Devon beef strain in the USA.

In Britain today the Devon has become a beef breed. It is now much thicker and rumpier, and larger than it was a century ago. Its rectangular frame is well suited to beef production. During the Second World War, when cattle food supplies were necessarily restricted so that the supposedly early maturing breeds were deprived of some of their rations, it was the Devon and the related Sussex which came to the fore and proved that, even under difficult conditions, they were able to produce good beef quickly. They managed to finish on grass quite happily and their marbled, lean, tender beef caught the eye of the butchers, as it has for centuries.

In the 1960s the breed was exported to Canada and is thriving at altitudes of 1,400m on the eastern slopes of the Rockies with bitter winter temperatures and no more shelter than brush. They also thrive in Kenya on a farm at 1,800m above sea level, in a wet savannah climate where they are being used to improve native cattle There are breed societies in the UK (1884; herdbook 1851), Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.

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