Devon Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Despite a history of triple purpose — beef, milk and draft — the modern American Devon is primarily a beef breed.
Janet Vorwald Dohner
July 2010


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Devon Cattle are useful to homesteaders interested in both meat and milk production, as well as a potential draft animal. This heritage livestock breed is notable for its ability to fatten well on pasture, and has a reputation as a good milking breed. The Celts, Romans, Vikings, and Saxons all brought cattle to England, and so it is nearly impossible to discover who brought the old red, middle-horned cattle to southern England. By the mid-eighteenth century, red cattle did indeed dominate Devon, Sussex, and Kent. These triple-purpose cattle gave rise to the lowland beef breeds: the Devon, Hereford, and Sussex. Today the Hereford has become a dominant beef breed around the world, while the Devon and Sussex have both become minor breeds.

Devonshire farmers were especially devoted to their Red Rubies, never forsaking them for more fashionable breeds. Devons contributed milk to the famous Devonshire clotted cream, and in the London markets, Devon beef usually brought a higher price than other beef. The Devon was sometimes called the North Devon to distinguish it from the very different breed known as the South Devon.

The first improver of the breed was Francis Quartly of North Devon. When he took over his father’s Devon herd in 1793, he observed that his neighbors were selling their best stock to feed the English troops during the wars with France and the United States. Quartly kept his best animals and paid more than the butcher for other superior stock. Eventually, his herd became the source for the best of the Devon breed. Another Devonshire family, the Davys, also kept and promoted the breed. Colonel Davy published the first herd book in 1851. The aristocracy was also fond of the Devon and transplanted it to other parts of England. Thomas William Coke, earl of Leicester, bred a well-known herd of Devons in Norfolk that continued for about one hundred years.

Long before the Quartly and Davy herds, the small triple-purpose Devon had made its way to the New World with the Pilgrims. This original Devon type is still represented in America by the Milking Devon breed, but it no longer exists in Britain. Devon cattle were certainly well known and common by the end of the eighteenth century. It is believed that George Washington, like many colonists, raised Devons for draft, beef, and milk. The first official seal of Vermont was designed in 1778 and prominently features a Red Devon cow. The state’s coat of arms also depicts the beloved “old red cow.” Milking Devon were brought into Canada in the early 1800s and were reimported in the1960s.

In Britain, this old triple-purpose Devon was raised for meat, milked, and widely used as a draft animal. Known as good “walkers,” these cattle also counted among their assets as work animals agility, docility and intelligence. Eventually, the beef aspects of the breed became commercially more important.

The modern British Devon is decidedly meatier and heavier on the backquarters. British breeders have recently decided to accept the Salers, a Continental beef breed, in crosses for registration as Devons. The Sussex, Lincoln Red, and South Devon are also being altered by similar crosses in an effort to compete with the tremendously large and meaty European breeds.

In the United States, the Devon Cattle Association was founded in 1881, although herd books had been published much earlier. Competition from other breeds reduced the Devon to small numbers, mainly in New England. In the early twentieth century, there was renewed interest in British Devons. In 1929, 5 Devon bulls and 18 cows were imported to New Hampshire and another bull and 2 cows were brought to Maryland. In 1930, Henry Ford also imported a bull and 6 heifers to Massachusetts. In the next thirty years, another 21 bulls and 46 cows were imported.

After World War II, most Devon breeders in the United States began to work toward enhancing beef conformation and accelerating maturity. The modern Devon is very much a beef breed today. Breeders who wished to preserve the old triple-purpose type formed the Milking Devon Cattle Association.

Unfortunately, the excellent qualities of the Devon remained unpromoted, and so the breed did not enjoy greater popularity. Under the leadership of Dr. Stewart Fowler, the breed reached its greatest number of registrations from 1979 to 1981. At present, fewer than 200 cattle are registered annually. Most are being used in crossbreeding operations, with perhaps 20 breeders producing purebred Devons. The Devon Cattle Association has begun to accept an upgrading program, and they will continue to register calves sired by Devon bulls on Milking Devon cows. A polled strain of Devons traces back to a hornless bull born in 1915. First fostered at the Gird Ranch in California and later at Devonshire Farm in Mississippi, Polled Devons have been introduced into many American herds and exported to Brazil, Australia, and back to England.

The American Devon, sometimes called the Beef Devon, is noted for its ability to gain and grow on grass alone. The breed also tolerates heat, especially the bulls, which maintain excellent fertility even in high temperatures. The cows are good mothers that still produce ample milk. For a beef breed, Devons are unusually refined in the head and bone. Mature cows weigh 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, with bulls growing heavier and larger.

Color may vary from the desirable rich ruby red to a lighter red or chestnut. The skin is an orange-yellow, especially rich in color around the eyes and muzzle. A small amount of white is allowed in the underside on the udder or in front of the scrotum. Sometimes the tail switch of older cattle gradually turns white. The Devon can grow a long and curly coat in winter but sheds out to a sleek, sometimes dappled coat in summer.

Purebred genetics are proven transmitters of hybrid vigor. Heat tolerance and grass-fed ability are all positive traits of the attractive Devon. A carefully developed new breed, the Texon, combines this grazing ability and the meatiness of the Devon with the browsing leanness of the Texas Longhorn. This development illustrates the possible future uses of old and rare breeds. The Texon and breeds like it could produce healthy, lean meat under sustainable conditions for a lower cost of production.

The Devon has been exported to Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, and South Africa. It has also contributed to the improvement and creation of other breeds.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available on Amazon. 


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