The Devon, affectionately called the “Red Ruby” or the North Devon to distinguish it from the unrelated South Devon breed, presents the same historical dilemma as so many other ancient breeds of cattle do: Where did it come from? Was it brought to England by the Phoenicians, the Celts, the Saxons, or the Vikings? All we know for certain is that when the Romans arrived in southwest England sometime around 55 B.C., the Devon was already there.
Quietly the breed served its masters for hundreds and hundreds of years, steadily producing meat and milk, as well as putting its shoulder to the yoke. Fads came and fads went, but the Devon maintained its rightful place on the farms of England. Little wonder, then, that when the first emigrants to America began to set up their farms, they set about importing some of the cattle they had known and respected back home.
The first cattle in New England were Devons, three heifers and a bull shipped to Plymouth Colony in 1623 at the behest of Edward Winslow. After clearing and plowing the land at Plymouth, the breed spread quickly throughout the developing country. Everywhere the colonists settled, the Devon went with them, from New England to Florida.
In a sense, the story of the Devon is the story of America. It supplied the butter for George Washington’s table in the peaceful days before the Revolution. It appeared on the state seal of Vermont when the war was over and the Constitution was ratified. It pulled the covered wagons of land-seeking pioneers venturing out on the Oregon Trail. And it broke the prairie sod in the days of the Homestead Act.
But the faithful Devon ox had rather mixed success in its subsequent progress through American history. The Holstein and the Jersey replaced its role in the dairy parlor, while on the beef side of things, it was found that larger breeds ate more grain and therefore brought better profits to the feedlots. And after World War II, who needed cattle for draft work?
Some persistent breeders clung to their Devon cattle, patiently developing its beef qualities in spite of the growing influence of feedlots on the American cattle industry. They even bred a polled (naturally hornless) variety that was easier to handle. This specialization in beef, however, disturbed some old-timers who valued the versatility of the original type of Devon. A handful of teamsters in the New England area divided from the main body of Devon enthusiasts and began focusing on the old, horned stock, which they renamed the American Milking Devon.
Better days have come again to both types of Devon, thanks to a renewed interest in both heritage livestock and grassfed beef. The time was right for a revival of the breed at the turn of the century. In 2002, renowned grassfed cattle expert Gearld Fry began importing Devons from New Zealand as the epitome of good grazing genetics. The cattle were a success in the grassfed industry, and even attracted the attention of conventional cattle ranchers.
With its great crossbreeding potential, the beef Devon seems to have regained a foothold in America, and is even reaching record numbers worldwide. The American Milking Devon remains far less popular than its meatier cousin. Although it has benefited from continued interest in homesteading, its numbers are still are critical levels.
There is a Devon for every purpose. The beef type, besides producing excellent meat in low-input systems, has earned respect for its ability to contribute its good traits to its crossbred offspring. The American Milking Devon can also produce good beef as well as milk and pulling power. Its milk is ideally suited to making organic cream, butter, and cheese. Both types of Devon are good choices for small farms, and both have potential in conservation grazing, the practice of improving native grasslands with livestock.
The Devon is renowned for its docile, friendly nature. Even the bulls are good-tempered when treated kindly, although they will resent rough handling. Devon cows make doting mothers.
There are some differences between the beef type and the milking type. In general, the beef type is somewhat less intelligent, but calmer and easier to handle. The milking type is smarter, livelier, and pluckier.
Devons have earned an excellent reputation for their good health. They seem to have a natural resistance to many diseases. Sun-related problems like cancer eye are very rare in Devons, and lameness is virtually unknown. Bloat is also rare in this breed.
- Size suitable for small acreages.
- Easy on both pastures and fences (except when the occasional horned Devon grounds an electric fence).
- Resistance to external parasites.
- Adaptability to most climates and pasture conditions, particularly drought.
- Amazing efficiency.
- Ability to thrive on minimal inputs.
- Strong foraging instinct.
- Longevity; both bulls and cows frequently stay in the herd until 14 years of age.
- Early maturity.
- Superior fertility, even in hot weather.
- Few calving problems.
- High survival rates.
- Sound udders.
- Rich, high-quality milk.
- High butterfat content (good for making butter and cheese).
- Beef type grows fast and finishes well on grass alone.
- Superior gourmet beef with a fine milky flavor.
- Juicy, tender meat even on poor forage.
- Great endurance as a draft animal.
- Ability to work for long periods of time at a brisk walk.
- Good temperament and hybrid vigor when crossbred.
- Milking type can be hard to find.
- Trend for bigger bulls is starting to cause calving problems in beef type.
- Relatively low quantities of milk, although still enough for a small farm.
- Lower quantities of beef than some of the more popular breeds.
- Draft animals can be a handful for beginning teamsters.
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Is the Devon right for you? This book will help you assess your five needs and make that decision. Includes a brief profile of the Devon breed. Free sample pages are available here.
This book from Homestead on the Range answers common questions about working with oxen and other draft animals, covering choosing a breed, finding equipment, feeding and caring for working animals, and much more. Free sample pages are available.