History of American Milking Devon Cattle
The Milking Devon is one of few triple purpose breeds of cattle left in the United States. This breed has always met the needs of the small farm, providing its owners with beef, milk, and draft power. While more common breeds of cattle have endured many changes and fads, the Milking Devon has retained most of its original qualities throughout history. Its value lies not only in its history, but in the qualities retained that other breeds have long since lost. The American Minor Breeds Conservancy has done a great deal to help the Milking Devon in recent times, but the breed's importance was identified long ago. (The term "Devon" is often used synonymously with Milking Devon in New England, and with the North Devon in England).
In 1858, William Youatt stated, "The Devon as an aboriginal breed is a very valuable one, that has seemed to have arrived at the highest point of perfection." He went on to point out, "From the earliest records the breed has remained the same, and had been altered in no essential point in the last 30 years."
Contemporary Milking Devon breeders are still not anxious to cross this animal to improve specific characteristics or make it more competitive with modern breeds. The breeders of the Beef Devon did follow this trend, and according to New England ox teamsters, "bred the brains and brawn out of the animals in the process." Even in its native North Devon, England, the original triple purpose Milking Devon can no longer be found.
In comparing many of the early descriptions of the Devon, it is obvious that the same beast exists today in color, form, size, productivity, and character in the Milking Devon. While total number may be critically low, the breed nonetheless continues to survive in its original form.
The Dairy Traits
The Milking Devon is not a dairy breed in the true sense of the word. It is not accepted as part of the American Purebred Dairy Cattle Association, yet Devons continue to be milked and also used as nurse cows today. The cows are small to medium in size, with great longevity and freedom from many diseases that frequent more productive breeds.
As early as 1788, a Mr. Conyers of Epping, England commented on the dairy traits of the Devon. According to William Youatt: "He (Conyers) preferred the Devons on account that they were liable to fewer disorders in their udder, and being small in size they did not eat more than half of what other cows consumed." In addition he stated, "A good North Devon cow can fat two calves a year."
Lewis F. Allen, in 1868, wrote of Devon cows being milked in the United States. "Our Devons yielded as much as any common cows we ever kept, with much less consumption of forage. We once had two three-year-old heifers, with their first calves, give an average of 18 quarts per day on pasture only."
John Wheelock of Colchester, Vermont, is one of the few breeders who has recently had the Milking Devon on DHIA testing. He agrees with past breeders. "The Devon are as they have always been; some are good milkers, others are poor. If you want a cow for maximum milk or beef production there are plenty of others to choose from. Devon don't fit neatly in any one category."
The Beef Traits
Many modern breeders of Milking Devons manage their cattle as beef animals, in that the cows nurse and raise their own calves. Historically, Devon breeders didn't "raise" beef as we know it. Beef was most often the fattened ox after it was considered unfit to work, or the cow after its productive life was considered over.
Most present day breeders agree that the Devons have very few problems calving, as the calves are usually quite small at birth. The cows are quite active on pasture and can adapt to a variety of climates or situations. In addition they provide plenty of milk to raise a healthy, robust calf. The breed tends to be slow to mature, but is fine boned and muscular, often fooling their owners in weight.
William Youatt wrote of their beef character, "They do not attain the great weight of some breeds, but in a given time they acquire more flesh with less consumption of feed, and their flesh is beautiful in its kind, being well marbled, pleasing to the eye and to the taste."
J. Russell Manning, in the 1880 Stock Doctor, wrote of the Devon, "As workers, milkers and beef makers combined, for the amount of food taken they have no superior. As beef makers alone, in the West only the Shorthorn and Hereford are superior."
In 1905, Thomas Shaw, Professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Minnesota, gave a wonderful summary of the Devon as a beef animal. "The grazing qualities of the Devon are of the first order, owing to their muscularity, their activity and their grazing habit. They readily obtain good livelihood on lands where heavy bodied breeds would probably fail. Many of the females breed to an advanced age, and the breed is noted for its longevity."
The Draft Traits
Historically the Devon has always been held in the highest regard as a draft animal. There are ox teamsters in present day New England who will yoke nothing but a Devon, because of the breed's snappy pace and ease in training. On the other hand, novice teamsters are often advised to choose more common breeds of cattle until they have learned to work with oxen. Devons will not tolerate abuse or poor training. In fact, many young teamsters have found that the Devons will often use intelligence to get their own way, rather than follow an inconsistent handler.
There has been more written about the attributes of the Devon as a working animal than could possibly be given here, but Lewis F. Allen accurately described and summarized the value of the Devon ox when he wrote, "For active handy labor on the farm or highway, under the careful hand of one who likes and properly tends him, the Devon is everything that is required in an ox, in docility, intelligence, and readiness for any task demanded of him. Their activity in movement, particularly on rough hilly grounds, give them for farm labor almost equal value to the horse, with easier keep, cheaper food, and less care. For his lack of size the Devon is not so strong as other breeds, but 'for his inches,' no horned beast can outwork him."
Given the light soils, hilly lands and rough pasture of New England, it is obvious why the last survivors of this breed were found here. The Milking Devon cannot compete with the Holstein for milk production, and it cannot compare with the Hereford in average daily gain, especially on full feed. But this breed of cattle was bred to survive. Even in 1993, there are small farms where the Devon still lives up to its ancient character and maintains its most esteemed stature.
Allen, Lewis F. American Cattle: Their History, Breeding and Management. Traintor Bros. and Co., New York, 1868.
Manning, J. Russell. The Stock Doctor. Hubbard Bros., Philadelphia, 1880.
Shaw, Thomas. The Study of Breeds. Orange Judd Co., New York, 1905.
Vaughan, Henry W. Breeds of Livestock in America. R.G. Adams & Co., Columbus, 1931.
Youatt, William. Cattle: Breeds, Management and Diseases. A.O. Moore Publisher, London, 1858.
Drew and Janet Conroy live in Berwick, Maine, on Oxwood Farm where they raise Milking Devons and other livestock. They use Devon oxen on the farm and refuse to employ a tractor.
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