Milking Devon Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

The Milking Devon is a triple-purpose breed that thrives on rough, hilly pasture.
Janet Vorwald Dohner
July 2010
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Devon cattle are a heritage livestock breed known to be good milking cows. Milking Devon cows may not produce incredible quatities of milk in comparison to today's modern milking cow breeds, but these cattle will happily turn rough, hilly grasslands into healthy milk for a family and homestead. The first Devons in North America were shipped aboard the Charity to the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1623. One bull and three heifers were consigned from Devonshire by Edward Winslow, agent for the colony. Although the Devon or North Devon was desirable as triple-purpose animal, other cattle were also imported. Four years later, the formal record of the Plimoth cattle division noted the presence of a red cow, a great black cow, black heifers, and a great white-backed cow.

More Devons were undoubtedly brought into the colonies. One hundred years later, the Devon stamp was clearly present on the common New England cattle, both in color and conformation. The Devon appeared on Vermont’s state seal and coat of arms, both designed in 1778. Devons were more numerous in New England than anywhere else in North America, but they were found throughout the new nation.

The Devons in New England may have found the climate and landscape similar to their homeland. For their part, New Englanders became devoted to the use of the ox. The ox team was well suited to clearing forestland, hauling logs and stones, and performing other heavy jobs. As many farmers have remarked, not only are oxen less costly to purchase or maintain than horses, but when their working life is over, they are still useful to eat. As late as 1890, oxen made up over 30 percent of the draft animals in states such as Connecticut and New Hampshire. The Devon steer was a long-legged, big-framed animal that moved with greater speed and had more endurance and intelligence than many other breeds.

Oxen were also used on the frontier. After oxen transported settlers to their new homes, they cleared the land. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Devon had been taken to the Great Plains. Oxen were used the longest where farming was conducted on rough terrain and the farmers were not raising cash crops but were engaged in subsistence farming. However, the Devon’s ability to tolerate heat became a positive trait in the western beef herds. The need to travel greater distances on western pastures has also favored longer legs on American Devons.

Oxen were also used longer in the southern Atlantic states and the Deep South. Devons in particular were able to deal with the hot, humid southern climate better than many other working cattle. Planters in rice growing areas preferred the ox, which was able to work even in the wettest conditions. In 1890, rice-growing counties were still using the ox 40 to 50 percent of the time.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, there were fifteen recorded shipments of Devons from Britain to Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Georgia. In 1817, six heifers and a bull named Taurus 197 came as a gift from Thomas William Coke, Earl of Leicester, who was an avid promoter of the Devon in England. Daniel Webster was also an importer of Devons in 1842.These imports became the foundation animals in the American Devon Record when it was published in 1881. More imports occurred sporadically for the next forty years, but some experts believed that American Devons were equal to or better than Devons in Britain. Agricultural writers noted that the size of Devon cattle had increased in England during the nineteenth century. It can be assumed that the Devons in America were more representative of the original triple purpose Devon, and indeed, they would remain that way into the next century.

By the 1880s, the Devon enjoyed an excellent reputation in America: “In fineness of limb, uniformity of color, delicacy of proportion, and purity of breeding they are unsurpassed by any other race of cattle. In localities where oxen are largely used, the Devons are highly esteemed for this purpose, as they rank among cattle as the thorough-bred among horses. According to their size they combine more fineness of bone, more muscular power, intelligence, activity, and bottom, than any other breed” (Jones 1885, 761).

The Devon steer of this era weighed 1,400 to 1,600 pounds and cows 800 to 1,000 pounds. Where the farmer bred for dairy qualities, the milk was said to be medium in quantity but superior in quality. The dairy cow was viewed as “docile in temper, easy to keep, and readily managed” (Jones 1885, 863). Devon beef was also highly regarded. The Devon matured early, and its meat was fine, flavorful, juicy, and nicely marbled.

Unfortunately, the popularity of multipurpose cattle was soon to end. Beef and dairy specialization replaced breeds such as the Devon. In a remarkably short time, the Devon was rare outside New England.

After the end of World War II, Devon breeders in the United States separated into two groups. One set of breeders, mainly in New England, continued to breed triple-purpose cattle, including their milking ability. Most other breeders concentrated on the beef producing potential of the Devon. The Milking Devon Cattle Association was formed in 1970, but suffered from low numbers. The association was reformed in 1978 and now continues with renewed interest in the traditional Devon type. In 1985, only 15 calves were registered, but in 1990, there were 120 registrations. There are now about 220 breeding females, mainly in small herds of three to four animals. The Milking Devon was imported to Canada in 1964 but remains in very small numbers.

The Milking Devon is a hardy breed, able to flourish on a poor-quality forage diet. Devon breeders report few birthing problems, for the calves are a nice, small size. The cow is a good mother with plenty of milk. Under dairy conditions, Milking Devons can produce up to 12,000 pounds of milk annually with 5 percent butterfat. The Devon also remains a fine beef producer. As herd members or oxen, they are long-lived with good temperaments. Some teamsters do advise that a Milking Devon team is not for the novice, for the intelligent Devon will not tolerate abuse or poor training. Experienced teamsters enjoy that intelligence as well as the Devon’s snappy walk. The Milking Devon must be shown with its horns.

The Milking Devon has been rescued by both devoted breeders and living history sites. Besides preserving the historical type now gone in Britain, the Milking Devon remains an ideal breed for the small farm. Milking Devon enthusiasts have noted that their breed cannot compete with the Holstein or Hereford in their specialties, but for rough pastures or hilly land that needs to be worked the breed will produce very well.

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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