Devon Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

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


| July 2010





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.





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