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Milking Devon Cattle

In the mid-1970s, during preparation for the American Bicentennial Celebration, Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation attempted to upgrade the authenticity of their agricultural interpretation by exhibiting appropriate breeds documented in their respective archives. The historic documentation indicated that Milking Devon cattle should be one of the centerpiece breeds. The difficulty in finding this once popular breed was the inspiration for the creation of the first North American livestock conservation organization, which was to become the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Devon cattle come from the southwestern peninsula of England, where the breed was developed over several centuries. The name comes from Devonshire, though similar cattle were also raised in the neighboring counties of Cornwall, Somerset, and Dorset. Devons were valued for the production of both high quality beef and the rich milk used in Devonshire cream. They were also regarded as the quickest and most active oxen in the British Isles, reputed to trot at six miles per hour while pulling unladen wagons. The breed had the reputation as an easy keeper, able to thrive on rough forage.

The Pilgrims brought Devon cattle with them to New England beginning in 1623. The hardiness and practicality of the breed combined with the ready availability of Devon cattle near the ports of departure, made Devons an obvious choice for immigrants to the Americas. The breed became well established in New England during the 1600s and spread down the coast as far as Florida during the 1700s and 1800s. Cattle also went west, as Devon oxen were the draft animals of choice on the Oregon Trail. Herd books for the breed have been published since 1855.

By the late 1800s, the Devon had gradually been replaced by the Shorthorn, a more productive multi-purpose breed. By 1900, Devon were rarely seen outside of New England. It was only in this region that the breed remained popular, continuing to be valued for hardiness and the ability to thrive under rugged conditions, qualities in which it was superior to the Shorthorn.

By the 1950s, the market for dual-purpose cattle had disappeared, and the Devon breed was nearly extinct. In response to this challenge, the breeder community split. The majority of breeders began to select their animals intensively for beef so that they could compete with other beef breeds. This population was called the Devon or the Beef Devon breed. The remaining breeders continued to select their animals for the traditional purposes: milk, meat, and draft. This population was called the American Milking Devon cattle breed. The American Milking Devon breed is now distinct from other Devon populations in the world and closest to the breed’s original type. It is unique to the United States.

The Milking Devon breed barely survived the next two decades, reaching its low point in the 1970s, when fewer than 100 cattle remained. The persistence of a few New England dairy farmers and teamsters protected the breed from extinction. Today, there are over 400 Milking Devon cattle in existence and the population is increasing. The breed is a favorite exhibition animal at historic sites because of its attractiveness and well-documented history.

Milking Devon cattle are ruby red with black-tipped white horns. Cattle are medium in size, with cows averaging 1,100 pounds and bulls 1,600 pounds. The appearance is compact yet fine, with a straight topline, square set legs, and well-formed udders. As with most dual-purpose breeds, the Devon population exhibits a range of dairy and beef characteristics. Relatively few strains are being actively selected for dairy production, though this type persists because the lighter dairy-type animals are said to make the best oxen.

Status: See CPL

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