The American Milking Devon | Preserving a Historic and Rare Breed of Cattle
Willow, an American Milking Devon at Manysummers Farm in Cornish, New Hampshire, has yellow honeysuckle flowers scattered across her broad, burgundy colored back, a consequence of grazing the lush grass beneath the blossoming shrub. As she considers at the visitors who’ve entered her pasture, half -munched grass dangles from her muzzle. She blinks, then lets out a soft belch, then plunges her head back into the sward, as if she knows: she belongs here.
And indeed she does. American Milking Devons were among the first cattle brought over by the British in 1623. Treasured for turning forage of poor pastures into rich butter and flavorful beef, this very same breed helped colonists skid timber and haul plows used to establish New England’s fields, perhaps even to clear the very one Willow grazes now.
In Passing America, Cornelius Weygandt noted that, “Oxen did the hauling through rough track that connected coast plantations and went inland from them. They pulled the crude sleds that were used summer and winter alike, before the blazed trails were wide enough and smooth enough for wheels. Oxen hitched in the logs of pine and spruce, of oak and chestnut, for the first houses and the bridges. Oxen dragged the shoveled plow that nosed up the ground for the corn and beans and potatoes that were grown among the stumps. To this day the great rocks in cellar walls and in causeways and in bridge abutments bear testimony to the might of ox power.”
And yet despite everything the versatile Devon has offered this country for nearly 400 years, by 1950, the breed that traces its lineage back to Medieval Devonshire, England had nearly died out.
The triple purpose cow fell out of favor when the tractor replaced oxen as main engine of farm work. By the time Passing America was published in 1932, its author observed that Devon oxen were on the wane. Teams such as the one belonging to Wes Tewksbury, “who with his yoke pulled our 1914 Ford out of the mud, in which it was helpless under its own power, as if it were no weightier than a baby coach,” were no longer found as frequently in the barns of New Hampshire. The red oxen that in the early part of the century were harnessed in teams of 14 to break open the snowy roads became scarce. Concurrently, dairy farmers seeking to increase their yields were turning to other breeds such as Holsteins, renown for giving vast quantities of milk.
Concerned about the breed’s future in the 1950s, the American Devon Association broke away from those raising Devon for dairy purposes, and formed its own association to market itself as a beef producer. This left the American Milking Devon behind to evolve as a uniquely purebred cow, whose numbers continued to dwindle.
However, organizations such as Swiss Farm Village in Rhode Island became committed to preserving the breed and its genetics. Another contingent keeping the breed vital is the American Milking Devon Association. Every spring their elected officers meet up in the middle of Vermont. In the Tunbridge Town Office basement, two- dozen folks wearing their cleanest jeans gather to discuss protection and promotion of the Milking Devon, how best to escort the breed beyond its present day estimate of 1,800 animals. These farmers include Bruce Balch, chef owner of The Bunten Farmhouse Kitchen in Orford, NH whose brought along some of his wife’s homemade Devon feta to share; and William and Noreen Blaiklock from Arrowsic, Maine who keep two Devon on their smallholding “for purely aesthetic reasons;” there’s Jeremy Michaud of Kingdom Creamery in East Hardwick, who specializes in Devon genetics, and Bill Gallagher, co-owner of Willow, the red cow sprinkled with honeysuckle.
Though not present, the membership also includes University of New Hampshire Professor in Animal Science, Dr. Drew Conroy who “refuses to employ a tractor” and instead uses Devons for draft power on their farm. And Doug Flack of Enosberg Falls, VT, who sells raw milk from his grass- fed Devon herd. And of course there’s Heather Gallagher, part of the second generation working the land at Manysummers Farm in Cornish, NH, who sells Devon raw milk cheese, raw milk yogurt and pasture raised beef to local restaurants and nearby markets, as well as selling semen straws of “Levi”–one of the Gallagher’s finely confirmed Devon bulls, to farmers across the country.
Less than 100 miles from where Willow’s spending her day grazing pasture, my great Aunt witnessed a yoke of the distinct “ruby” cattle and never forgot it. In a magazine called the New Hampshire Troubadour, she described how in the summer of 1922, “It was the oxen that won my heart. They were of the Devon breed those oxen, dark red of color, and of good size. It is 15 years now since I saw them, but even now… I can close my eyes and see…the oxen going down the little rise toward the lower corner.”
Given the resurgent interest in small- scale agriculture, the multipurpose American Milking Devon may rise again. Maybe my great aunt’s vision was more than a nostalgic memory.
Perhaps it was premonition.