Devons in England, Then and Now
In 2005, I was able to fulfill a goal of mine that had been both a dream and a quest to answer a question that has haunted me. How and why is it that these Milking Devons no longer exist in their native England in their traditional dual-purpose form? This question has long puzzled me. For years now I've searched for the answer to this. My wife and I decided that a trip to England would be the best means to answer this question. Spending nearly two weeks in t he "west country" in the counties of Devon, Somerset, and Cornwall, we visited many families who owned Beef Devons, an improved cousin to the original multi-purpose Devon which once called England home.
Prior to going to England, I had made contacts with the Beef Devon Club of England's Secretary where I was able to get a list of all the Breeders of Devons in the "west country." I also inquired about anyone who might have used Devons for milk. The answer was always the same... no one had owned a "Milking Devon" or had actually milked a Devon in years and no one knew why Devons were no longer used for milk. Still I insisted on visiting as many of the old breeders as possible in hopes that they could explain how an entire breed of cattle could have been lost.
A great breed of cattle described in 1858 by noted expert William Youatt as, "a breed arriving at the highest point of perfection." None of this made sense to me. As I traveled around to visit various herds of Devons and retraced the steps of the breed, I spoke to many families, some who could directly trace their cattle within their family all the way back to the first Devon herd book written and published by Colonel J. Tanner Davy in 1851. Many of these families could remember the old breed which was used for milking, but couldn't remember why they disappeared.
We talked to 3 or 4 Devon herd owners a day and viewed a few hundred Beef Devons over two weeks and not a single breeder could explain why or how the traditional multi-purpose Devon used for milking had virtually disappeared into thin air. We attended a Devon Auction, a Devon Club field day on classification and as we networked with breeders and inquired about breeders who might have knowledge of Milking Devons no one could remember who used to milk the cattle and many folks never knew they were ever used for milk.
As my frustration mounted I stumbled upon an opportunity that turned out to be the key to answering my question. While visiting with the breeders I overheard a conversation about a collection of "Herd Books" for sale. These "Herd Books" contain breeding information and records of the Devon Club - one book for each year. The collection we purchased went back to 1922. As I began reading though the volumes I slowly pieced together the demise of the traditional multi-purpose breed that was used for milking. The following excerpts will best tell the story.
1921 - In the 1921 Herd Book under "Milking Devons" it reads as follows: "It was disappointing at the Dairy Show to see the small number of exhibits in the Devon classes, but the cows shown were excellent and the public seemed to take a good deal of interest in these exhibits. There had been a considerable complaint amongst breeders of Milking Devons that the Council had not encouraged milk in the past. Prizes are offered at the Dairy show and at the R.A.S.E. show and it is very disappointing that at the former show only four entries should have been sent in. When we see that one Devon cow gave 56 lbs of milk in one day, it is clear that they ought to be able to hold their own with any other breed, having regard particularly to the fact that our cattle are dual-purpose and many of the other breeds are kept solely for milking. At the Dairy show a Devon cow beat cows of all breed in butterfat, her average percentage being 6.43. If the classes at this show are to be retained we would point out the necessity of getting a larger number of entries at future shows, and unless this is done, we are afraid the Dairy Show Council will eliminate this class, as they do not favour the retention of classes for any particular breed, unless they are well filled. It would seem now is the time for breeders of Milking Devons to bestir themselves and prepare for next year's show."
1923 - In the 1923 Herd Book the following was noted "Milking Devons" "It is interesting to record the splendid success of the Devons as milkers at the Bath and West Show at Plymouth. In the Milk Test for cows of all breeds, in which South Devons, Shorthorns, Red Polls, Friesians, Jerseys, Dexters and Devons to the number of 31 competed, the first and second prizes were won by Devon cows. The first prize animal gave 66 1/4 lbs of milk in 24 hours."
1926 - In the 1926 Herd Book it is noted: "...progress in the other branch of our dual-purpose breed. From the very beginning the Devon has been well known as one of the prime beef producing breeds and every credit is due to that band of members who are doing their utmost to bring the Devon breed to the forefront as milk cattle. The winner of the Busk Perpetual Challenge Cup at the 1925 Dairy Show is the illustration of the success attained by these members, viz.,the cow "Winford Dahlia" (C806), who's milk record for the year ending 1st October, 1925, was 12,468 1/2 lbs." This volume of milk for this time in history was exceptional and it was most likely diet of pure grass.
1931 - In the 1931 Herd Book, milk records were first incorporated into the book. These records show the value of the high-quality of Devon milk in butterfat which averaged around 4.5% and many exceeded that.
1942 - During World War II, cattle farmers in England were being encouraged to produce milk. In the 1942 herd book I find it to be completely clear that the Devon Cattle Breeder's Society is not in favor of supporting members who are interested in Devons for the dairy purpose. The following excerpt out of the 1942 herd book leads me to conclude this: "The number of new members elected during the past year, proves that Devon breeders are alive to the wisdom of building up herds to meet future requirements and that only in a very few instances have breeders yielded to the temptation, in the present emergency, to go over solely to milk production." To summarize: it's great if you are a breeder of Devons and you want to focus solely on beef, but this is clearly not the case for those interested in focusing solely on milk. Even in times of emergency (WWII) when the government of England was begging for farmers to produce more milk.
1943 - When we examine the 1943 herd book we find another clear statement about the political agenda (Devons are to be beef animals not dual-purpose animals) of those who are running the Devon Cattle Breeder's Society, during these times. "War time conditions have compelled a certain emphasis to be laid upon milk-production and it might have been expected that this would have an adverse effect upon a breed like the Devon whose outstanding quality (though by no means it's only one) is undoubtedly beef production."
1945 - In the 1945 Herd Book we find the last year that the Herd Book has a dairy section. From here moving forward the Dairy Section and the owners of these cattle will now fall under the newly created Dual-Purpose section. This move is further proof that as a member of this society, you may be most interested in milk and improving your stock for that purpose, but you will always raise your cattle with beef production in mind and that is the reason for renaming the "Dairy Section" the Dual-Purpose section. Eventually with enough discouraging, these Milking Devon breeders will get the message that Devon = Beef.
1946 - In the 1946 herd book, it is urged to abandon the use of Devons for milk production. "...milk production on such farms is an uneconomic proposition and the farmers concerned are being recommended to abandon their wartime policy of milk production and to return to their original policy of breeding and rearing of good Devon store cattle. With the hill cattle and calf subsidies to be claimed these farmer will find that the trust which their ancestors placed in Devon cattle was fully justified and many will regret that they allowed the blandishments of the monthly milk cheque to weigh against the old and tried policy of breeding and rearing. The present prices of store cattle (particularly Devons) are likely to remain for a very long time and with the consequent reduction in labor difficulties, breeding and rearing will be a "picnic" compared to the trials of milk production."
1947 - In the 1947 Herd Book we see the Society offering prizes to "young farmers who raise Devons for beef". "A considerable amount of Propaganda and Advertising has been undertaken during the year. Strenuous efforts have been made to counteract the excessive propaganda for the production of milk to the exclusion of beef. Contacts have been established with many Young Farmers Clubs through the offer of a Challenge Cup to clubs which rear Pedigree Devon Calves, by the offer of prizes and other assistance in connection with stock judging competitions and by talks or lectures on Pedigree Devon Cattle or for breeding beef."
1960 - In the 1960 Herd Book. After 34 years of slowly chipping away at those society members interested in milking Devons we sadly see the last year of an entry of a single breeder of Milking Devons (John Sage). With this, we see the end of the Milking Devons in England. It is clear to me from this research that Milking Devons in England became extinct as a dual-purpose dairy cow because of the politics within the Devon Cattle Breeder's Society.It is noteworthy to point out that similar circumstances occurred in America to lead to the demise of the breed here. One can conclude this by reviewing the facts laid out here. When you consider that the Milking Devons were winning numerous competitions in volume of milk and they were producing a high butterfat milk in excess of 4.5% and in some cases over 6%, one quickly can see that these "Milking Devons" were excellently equipped to be dairy cows as well as beef cows.
Sadly, Devons as a Milking Breed no longer exist in their native homeland or anywhere else in the world with the exception of a critically endangered population in America. Because of the excellent quality of their meat, these cattle are harvested for beef before they can ever reach a sizable population that would allow them to be utilized for dairy purposes or for any other purpose for that matter. It is worthy to point out that these animals represent through history in past and present exceptional dairy animals capable of producing the highest quality milk.
In England the present day Devon is a breed that has been drastically "Improved" this has been done through careful breeding for particular traits. In many cases the Devons in England have been improved by crossing them with other breeds of Cattle. One breed that has been commonly used to improve Beef Devons in England is the Saler. This breed of cattle is from France and is red in color and is sometimes called the"French Devon". The Saler was selected as a suitable cross to make a larger framed Devon. In England breeders may register a calf that is from a cross bred cow after 2 generations of breeding back to a registered Devon Bull. This is a practice which is not allowed in the American Milking Devon Association. Based on this, it's safe to say that in all likelihood the closest living example of the Historical Cattle that once roamed the English Countryside in ancient times is the American Milking Devon.
Historical Photo of American Milking Devon Cattle, known as North Devon Cattle in England.