“Devons finish too fast,” was the refrain from feedlot owners in the mid 20th century. The recenlty established grain cabal, brought about by subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture1, wanted animals that were late maturing and growthy (they grow tall and long), rather than early maturing and soggy (they grow out). These “growthy steers” would continue to put on muscle without getting fat, allowing them to sell more “yardage” (grain). It didn’t matter that the farmer lost feed efficiency, maternal and paternal traits, and good temperment. Or that the customer lost what has been described in prior times as “noticeably better beef.”

The longer the cattle were in the feedlot, the more money the cabal made. Consequently, the Devon breed–which had garnered much praise for its superior traits since the Ag writing renessaince of the 18th century and a breed that Robert Bakewell had stated “could not benefit from any alien cross”2–was shunned, exiled.

A remarkable occurence given the breed’s history.

Origin

During Caesar’s conquest of Britain starting in 55 BC, he found a small, fine-boned breed of cattle known only by its latin name: Bos longifrons.3 This breed was not native to the island. They were possibly brought by the Phoenicians, around four hundred years earlier, to trade for Cornish tin. The placename, where they landed, pays homage to the “Red Ox”.4

The Island’s bovine history is murky after the Roman conquest. It is thought that the Longifrons lived until the 5th century in Britain, eventually dying out or being replaced by the development of new breeds. These new breeds were likely developed by mingling the Longifrons with the stock brought by invading armies5, and the occasional commercial importation from the continent6. The Devon is thought to have developed early on in this process,7 and may have influenced breeds as diverse as the Hereford and Kerry.8

From the Saxon era, we find written records describing their meticulous care and management of their livestock, but little was said of the composition and history of cattle breeds. Descriptions of mass diseases, that happened from time to time, indicate that cattle were being brought in.9

Few other specifics are known until livestock literature became prevalent in the 18th and 19th century. In these writings, the cattle from North Devon are praised for their ability to finish on forage, their value at market, and for their vastly superior beef among other traits. This did not happen by accident since their keepers were held in equal esteem for their attention to detail and their devotion.7 2 10

As a result, the breed was in demand in places as far away as the West Indies and were already in the Colonies.7

Coming to America

While it is unlikely that the Mayflower brought any Devon to Plymouth, they arrived soon thereafter in 1623 aboard the ship Charity: one bull and three heifers, the first American Devons.11

Not much has been recorded about this period in American Devon history between 1623 and 1800. The breeder that had the most influence on 19th century herds was a Mr. Patterson.

Since then, the breed has remained remarkably pure, considering the rapid denigration of other noted breeds on our Continent during the grain years following World War II. It has maintained its noted excellence of traits which include meat quality, cut-out percentage, reproductive ability, early maturity, calving ease, consitency, and prepotency.Devon were not only wanted for their meat and reproductive qualities. On the Oregon trail they were the sought after as Oxen.
New England Farmers of the Civil War era, were said to pass on the improved English breeds and stick with their reliable Devons. The first American Devon Herd Book in 1855, was followed by the formation of the American Devon Cattle Club in 1884. New England would remain a Devon stronghold in the years to come, even when many other areas of the country started to adopt the Shorthorn and other breeds starting around 1900.

This was the high water mark of Devon in America—until their resurgence in the early 21st century.

Death and Resurrection

Cheap grain and chemical fertilizers following World War II spelled the doom for Devons in the eyes of many: Devon convert feed too efficiently, they put on fat easily, drastically shortening the amount of time they can spend in feedlots. In the United States, they largely became the domain of hobby farmers, who kept the breed pure but not as functional. Some Devon breeders tried to change their herds in an attempt to kowtow to the grain mania, but, fortunately, it never caught on.

In 2002, Gearld Fry started a revival of the breed by importing Devon from New Zealand, raised under the keen and meticulous management of Ken MacDowall. The coming of these immigrants and a renewed interest in State-side Devons, was timely. The American public was becoming aware of the catastrophe that is industrial agriculture. They wanted clean, flavorful, tender beef raised solely on grass. The late-maturing, corn-type animals didn’t cut it: they took too long to finish and they were not consistently tender. Members of the beef industry, especially those raising natural beef because they could not use implants, could see the writing on the wall as well: because of high grain prices the need for outcrosses with significant hybrid vigor that would finish quickly was essential. Devons were the answer.

As a result, the newly formed North American Devon Association, founded in 2006, experienced rapid growth; the established American Devon Cattle Association, a decendent of the origin American Devon Cattle Club, saw a steady strengthening of its membership. In 2011, a cow-calf pair at a public auction sold for an unprecedented $34,000.

Devons are here to stay. The secret is getting out.

Notes


  1. Farm subsidies: http://www.yale.edu/sustainablefood/S9256YSF_farm_bill_s.pdf.pdf 
  2. A General Treatise on Cattle, the Ox, the Sheep, and the Swine*, page 35: At the beginning of the 19th century, the Devons were commented as having “uncommonly fine beef” and that they could be “fattened on hay alone.”

    Ibid page 36: High repute as feeders, and superior excellence of their beef, which has been acknowledged for ages. Robert Bakewell at the time stated that they could not be improved by any alien cross. They commanded the best prices at the market.

    Ibid page 41: Devons superior for veal.

    History of the Devon Breed of Cattle, James Sinclair, Page 23: “The breed of cattle in the North Devon is remarkably fine, and are, perhaps, the best in the Kingdom.” 

  3. Caesar finding the cattle is well documented and archeology points to Bos longifrons(1902 Encyclopedia). The Celtic Short-horn, Kerry, Highland, and Welsh Cattle are all thought to be heavily derived from Bos longifrons. Citations: Archaeologia: Or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Volume 55, Issue 1 of Archaeologia; Pages 133 & 157 and ALBC Kerry Breed.

    Bos brachyceros is now thought to be the same as Bos longifrons (Citations: Agricultural Geology Page: 315) and (Archaeologia: Or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Volume 55, Issue 1 of Archaeologia; Pages 133 & 157) and An annotated bibliography on the origin and descent of domestic mammals and A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals By Juliet Clutton-Brock, page 84

  4. Ibid, Page 21. See also this article. There are some who say there is no evidence that the Phoenicians ever came to Britain (Wikipedia entry). But, it is not that cut and dry as can be seen by these articles this article as well as this one
  5. Invading Armies: Romans, 55 BC; Anglo-Saxon’s, in the 5th and 6th century; Vikings, eighth through eleventh century; and finally the Normans, 1066 (Wikipedia Article). Some maintain that the Romans would not have imported cattle (Title: Agricultural Geology Page: 315 ISBN: 9781001418810 URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=-Bc9AAAAIAAJ, while others say that they most likely did (from Archaeologia) 
  6. History of the Devon Breed of Cattle, James Sinclair, Pages 17, 18, 20 and http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/devon-cattle-heritage-livestock-zeylaf.aspx#axzz2frKkQBX8 
  7. History of the Devon Breed of Cattle, James Sinclair, Pages 31 & 32: Rev. Richard Polwhele’s [corresspondence] upon the subject of the North Devon breed. He says: “Whether the breed of cattle famous in the North of Devon are indigenous or not, it is not easy to determine. There are some circumstances in the description of them which lead me to think that they are indiginae : they are in many respects superior to any other breed in the kingdom. . . . The cattle when fat, being of fine grain, are preferred in the Smithfield market. . . . who work them two or three years, fatten them, and drive them to London, where being in great favour, they realize the highest price in proportion to their size . . . the great demand, reaching even in the last century as far as the West Indies, for Devon bulls.

    Ibid page 34, 36: Origin of Devonshire cattle from “native black cattle”

    Ibid page 40: The Rev. Thomas Moore, in The History of Devonshire, published in London in 1829, assumes that the several varieties of the county breed of cattle all spring from a common original stock which probably has undergone less alteration than any other breed in the country. He pays the usual tribute of praise to the elegance of the young North Devon heifers, their exact symmetry, their taper legs, the small features of their countenance, and their clear coats of dark red; the generous flesh, of high market value, of the full-grown cattle

    Ibid page 43: Perhaps some of the Devon families remained in unbroken lines of descent, through many generations.

    A General Treatise on Cattle, the Ox, the Sheep, and the Swine, page 36: North Devon is one of Britain’s original breeds.

    Cattle: their breeds, management, and diseases : with an index
    By William Youatt
    : In Devon . . . the cattle [have] been the same from time immemorial. 

  8. A General Treatise on Cattle, the Ox, the Sheep, and the Swine, page 39: Hereford originating from Devons.

    Ibid page 41: It was recommended if an animal was too coarse in bone or too large, that it be crossed with a Devon.

    Influenced Kerry Breed: Evolution of British Cattle, Page 99 & 100

  9. History of the Devon Breed of Cattle, James Sinclair, Pages 19 & 20. 
  10. History of the Devon Breed of Cattle, James Sinclair, Page 34: A Devon breeder, himself bred to the business and trained to it from early life, thoroughly knowing the type of his breed in all variations of condition and in all stages of growth, will intuitively perceive fitness or unfitness which might easily escape a beginner’s observation. 
  11. http://web.ccsd.k12.wy.us/techcurr/social%20studies/05/0101pc22-26.html and http://www.hobbyfarms.com/farm-breeds/others-profiles/milking-devon-2.aspx and http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/devon.html