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Milking Devon Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

The Milking Devon is a triple-purpose breed that thrives on rough, hilly pasture.

| July 2010

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.

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