Angus might reign supreme in the modern day U.S. cattle industry but the Devon was the original American cow.
Nearly 400 years ago, cattle from Devonshire, England, were the first to set foot on North American soil. Records show Red Devon cattle came to Plymouth Colony aboard the ship, Charity, in 1623 or 1624. Three heifers and a bull made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Devon is known historically as being a triple threat breed — able to provide meat, milk and to be used as draft animals. The Pilgrims needed help hauling timber and tilling the ground.
These days Devons aren’t often used for pulling a plow, but they still have a place in modern agriculture, particularly in grass- and pasture-based production systems that are becoming more popular with small farmers.
“I think for me the real win with the Devons is their efficiency, how they convert a bite of grass into carcass and quality carcass,” said Steve Montgomery, president of Red Devon USA, the national breed association. Montgomery runs Lamppost Farm, in Columbiana, Ohio.
For those curious about the breed, the 2022 National Red Devon Cattle Meeting and Show is being held in eastern Ohio this year, Oct. 20-22. Sessions will be at River View High School, in Warsaw, Ohio and at Thousand Hills Acres, in Walhonding, Ohio.
Making a comeback
An excerpt from the 1868 American Devon Herd Book, Vol. 2 describes the Devon as being able to “produce as much milk, work or beef, from the food consumed, or on any given quantity of land, as any other breed.”
“The only objection ever presented to the breed is ‘they are small;’ but we can keep more of them, and that on shorter pastures and coarser food,” the herd book continued.
Being multipurpose, hardy and adaptable were invaluable traits as white colonists spread across and developed the continent. But the breed fell out of favor by the mid-20th century, as beef cattle breeds and agriculture started to evolve to value high production.
Anne Derousie, a historian and Devon breeder based in New York’s Finger Lakes region, said Devons didn’t fit well into feedlots. Devons didn’t grow as large and finished too quickly, yielding a small carcass and less meat overall than other breeds.
The breed has started to make a comeback as people have realized and as the market for grassfed and finished meat has grown substantially. Red Devons are listed as a recovering breed by the Livestock Conservancy.
Derousie started breeding Devons in the ’90s just for fun after reading an article about rare and endangered breeds of livestock. She eventually switched her herd from Angus to all Devons. She raises them for seed stock and feeder calves.
“We never looked back and I’d never have an Angus on the farm again,” she said. “We love the Devons. They’re so easy to get along with.”
Montgomery got his first Devon cross cows in 2010. He was looking for cattle that would perform well on a grass-based system and had a calm temperament as Lamppost Farm is also a teaching farm.
“I’m asking people to join me in the field,” he said. “I didn’t want to have questions about whether it was a good thing or not.”
He has a herd of about 60 Devons and sells grassfed beef at his on-farm store.
Red Devon USA has grown in recent years, from 125 to 145 members last year. Montgomery’s goal is to get up to 200 Devon breeders in the group.
The time is right for people interested in learning more about Devons, Montgomery said. In addition to the national conference in Ohio, the World Devon Congress tour is scheduled for spring 2024 in the U.S., in conjunction with the celebration of 400 years of Devon cattle in America.
Anyone is welcome to attend the national conference. The cost is $110 for adults and $50 for children ages 11-18.
The conference opens Oct. 20, with a social at Mark Reed’s Thousand Hill Acres in Walhonding.
On Oct. 21, there will be educational sessions in the morning, followed by a live meat cutting demonstration by A.J. O’Neil, a butcher and Devon breeder based in western Pennsylvania, in the afternoon. O’Neil said a common question he gets from his customers and other producers is “did I get all my meat back from the butcher?”
He will show before and after photos of the steer he’s cutting and show the process of breaking down an animal and how much it yields.
O’Neil, who is also a caterer, will be serving some of that beef as part of the banquet dinner to close out the conference Oct. 22.
More information on the conference can be found at reddevonusa.com.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
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