Why Rotokawa Devons?
Description of Devons

The following historic description of the breed comes from Charles Plumb’s classic Type and Breeds of Farm Animals published in 1906:

Characteristics of the Devon

The Devon is not easily confounded with other breeds, owing to its individuality. The color is usually a bright red, for which they have been nicknamed “Rubies.” The shade varies from light to dark.

White is not admissible, excepting about the udder of the cow, or in front of the scrotum of the male, and not beyond the navel with either, nor outside of the flanks or elsewhere on the body. The hair about the eyes and muzzle should be of a creamy tint and the muzzle be flesh-colored. In addition to color as an identifying mark, the head, horns, and neck have distinctive breed attributes. The head is lean and cleanly made, and, with the female, is crowned by a pair of slender horns that are “long, spreading and gracefully turned up, of a waxy color, tipped with a darker shade.” The bull’s horns grow at right angles from the head or are slightly elevated, are stout and waxy at the base, and are tipped with a darker shade. The neck shows a considerable refinement, with neat head and body attachment. The body of the Devon is medium in size, is blocky of form, and usually carries a well-sprung and deep rib with strong heart girth The legs are small and show more refinement than is the case with some other breeds. In fact typical Devons have often been referred to as deer like in character, owing to the natural refinement of the breed.

Two types of Devons essentially exist. Those in north Devon have always been of the smaller form, and beef production has been emphasized with them. In south Devon, where the breed is known also as the South Devon or South Hams, the cattle average larger, are lighter colored, tend to be coarser, and are more productive of milk, due, it is said, to the blood of Guernsey cattle. These two types have been more or less intermingled, but the best breeders of to-day advocate adherence to type. Professor Robert Wallace in his work on the Farm Live Stock 0f Great Britain gives a third, a special Somerset type, found in north Devon. These cattle are larger, have a more droopy horn and are coarser than the north Devon type, due to the better soil and climate of Somerset. As exhibited in America, the breed shows at a distinct disadvantage, for in the same show ring the beefy type may and does compete with the dual-purpose type Western breeders appear to favor the north Devon style, while eastern breeders lay emphasis on the dairy value of the breed, as does, in fact, the Devon cattle association.

The size of the Devon accordingly shows considerable variation. Naturally Devons are of the smaller class as seen in beef-cattle classes in America, and this is one objection that has been raised against the breed in this country, together with the fact that the steers will not fatten as rapidly as some of the other kinds. Mature cows, according to Sinclair, weigh from 1300 to 1500 pounds and bulls from 1500 to 2100.

The Devon as a butcher’s beast does not attain the high weights of the common beef breeds, nor does it fatten as rapidly as some, but kills out extremely well, with small bone and moderate offal, producing the best of beef, fine of grain and of superior quality. Devons in the past have made a good record at the British fat stock shows, often winning high honors. This applies in particular to the beef type of north Devon. The modern breeders of that section agree that to increase the size will injure the quality, and therefore refuse to do so Sinclair notes one English Devon breeder, whose specialty is steer breeding, who reckons that the weight of a fat Devon steer a little under three years old should be about 800 pounds. In 1891 the first-prize Devon steer at the Smithfield Club Show, London, “not exceeding two years old, was ~ days old and had a live weight of 964 pounds.

Devons as milk producers rank very well. Many New England farmers keep Devon grades or pure-breds, from which they often secure fair yields. The milk is rich in fat, comparing favorably with that of the Jerseys. The breed is essentially unknown in Competitive dairy tests in this country. In the American Devon Record are numerous examples showing that many cows of the breed are ample dairy producers. E.C. Bliss states that his full-grown cows yield an average of 300 pounds of butter a year. J.W. Collins writes: “I have one cow, Lucky 3784, that has produced 2½ pounds of butter per day for weeks, and I have frequently had others that have made 2¼ to 2½ pounds per day.” Wallace states that as a breed for milk production “it has and still is inferior. The cows give but a small quantity of milk and tend to go dry early.” Alvord, who knew the breed states that some families bred and selected for dairy purposes have made fair records, single animals producing 40 and even 50 pounds a day.

The Devon in crossing or grading has seen much service in the eastern United States. Owing to its long pure inheritance the breed characteristics are usually strongly transmitted. Devon bulls on grade cows will produce a superior class of beef and rich milk. In its native home many steers are grass fed and receive but little grain.

Devon oxen have long ranked very high. In New England and the eastern United States, when oxen were more extensively used than today, the Devon was a favorite sort. Years ago in New England one might have seen many fine yokes of grade Devon oxen, that were highly valued for intelligent and active draft service on the hill farms. No cattle are more light and active of foot for this purpose.”

History of the Devon Breed

Devons: Early History

The record of the early history of the breed is also from the account by Charles Plumb in Types and Breeds of Farm Animals published in 1906:

The native home of the Devon breed of cattle is in southwestern England in the counties of Devon and Somerset. Devon is washed by the sea on its north and south borders, while Somerset also borders the Bristol Channel on the north. The section contains much rough and hilly land, reaching a height of even 2,000 feet, and is better suited to grazing than tillage, though the soil is fertile. In the southern part the climate is mild and balmy, being well suited to outdoor life for cattle the year round.

The origin of the Devon is prehistoric. It has been assumed that the breed is descended from Bos longifrons, the smaller type of aboriginal cattle in Britain. The earliest English records show the prevalence of cattle in Devon of a color and type indicative of the modern breed. The early British writers on live stock testify to its ancient character.

Francis Quartly is generally conceded to have accomplished for the Devon what the Collings did for the Shorthorn. He lived at Champson-in-Molland near South Molten, where his father in 1776 began to breed Devons. The father died in 1793 and Francis at once began active work as a breeder on his own responsibility. The cattle of Devon were deteriorating for the reason already given. He recognized this, and not only refused to sell but sought out and purchased the choicest individuals possible, thus developing the best herd of his time. From his herd, which was sold on his retirement in 1836, has descended the most distinguished Devon blood. William Quartly also had a herd until 1816, when he sold it to his eldest brother Henry, who continued breeding until his death in 1840. Neither Francis nor William were ever married, but Henry was, and left two sons, James and John, who succeeded him. They also became great breeders, as did John’s son, Henry, later on. The Quartly family lived in North Devon, not far from Somerset County.

John Tanner Davy was a son of John Davy, a Devon breeder, who was born about 1706 and died at Rose Ash, South Molton, North Devon, in 1790, leaving a choice herd to sons, John T. and William. John produced a celebrated herd and won many prizes. Numerous celebrated Devons descended from his herd. He died in 1852 and was succeeded by his son, Colonel Davy, the founder of the Devon herdbook. This son, who died in 1887, aged fifty-nine, was during his prime the most distinguished student and promoter of Devons in England. He not only founded the herdbook but contributed much to Devon literature.”

Early History in America

I quote liberally from an article by Kristina Bielenberg, one of the founding directors of the American Minor Breeds Conservancy (now ALBC), written in 1976 and titled “New England Cattle: Red Natives of Devonshire Extraction”:

” In my own estimation, the best breed of cattle decidedly for all purposes that I have seen, are the fine red cattle of Old Hampshire and Worcester counties in Massachusetts. The cows are clean limbed and well formed, and usually good milkers; the oxen large, exceedingly active, and of quick growth, very hardy, and remarkably handsome . . . . (From a letter to the editor of the “Genesee Farmer” reprinted on p. 116 in the October 24, 1832 edition of the “New England Farmer”)

When the English settled along the coast of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, they brought with them neat cattle from their home districts or from the counties nearest the ports of their departure…. the principle or dominant stock appears to have been of Devonshire extraction. By the last decades of the eighteenth century and early years of the nineteenth, however, the New England cattle were described by many admirers as a “breed”, so carefully had certain characteristics been cultivated in them…. the “red natives,” with their upright and spreading horns, attracted the most attention for they provided “the primary objects of the New England farmer – labour, beef, and rich milk for butter and cheese . . .

In the hilly portions of New England where the pastures were often short and the work hard, the chief merit of the Devon-type native was its excellence as a draught animal. Lewis Allen stated that “for ordinary labor, either at the plow, the wagon, or the cart, he is equal to all common duties, and on the road his speed and endurance is unrivalled.” It was claimed that these cattle could trot along at six miles per hour with an empty cart, whereas the “heavier oxen (Shorthorn) . . . for want of activity would be ineligible; and for the road particularly unfit, – their feet . . . would fail.”

The red native was considered to be a good milker from the standpoint that it produced more butter per pound of milk than most any other breed available to New Englanders before the importations of Channel Island cattle. Although the Devon-type cow presumably lacked some of the angularity found in most of the dairy breeds, she was broad in the ribs, “barrel-like”, or what some writers described as “roomy.” The Oakes cow produced a pound of butter from 7 quarts of whole milk. The most general figure given was from 12 to 16 quarts, wine measure, per pound…

Indeed, the Devon-type cattle of New England, as so often pointed out by Timothy Pickering, were efficient feeders. . . . Their fine muzzle, prominent and clear eye, long neck without dewlap, and delicate forelegs attracted the fancy of many farmers. The agility and intelligence of the ox was highly valued. These characteristics and others contributed to the long popularity of the red native; for as late as 1861, the Commissioner of Patents reported that in New England the farmers still preferred their cattle of Devonshire extraction despite the availability of even more improved English breeds.

The Devons in 1800s America

The Devons in 1800s America

The Devon Cattle Book published by the American Devon Cattle Club in Boston in 1920 gives some general comments on the attractiveness of the Devon breed and then an accounting of importations and notable breeders of the 1800s:

It is a common saying that “A man once a Devon Breeder is always a Devon Breeder.” There is no breed of cattle that is so uniform in type as the Devon. They are the most bloodlike and active of cattle.

For a large portion of our country they are better adapted than any other. They are not excelled for hardiness by any other breed, thriving where other cattle would starve and yet showing care and good feed as much as any. Their strong digestive organs aid in giving profitable returns for feed consumed, and their robust constitution makes them freer from disease than any other breeds.

The first account that we have of the importation of Devon cattle into New England was in the ship Charity, in the spring of 1623, in the care of Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, then agent of the colony of Plymouth.

    1800 Winthrop & Davenport imported Devons into Massachusetts.
    1805 Gen. Eaton imported Devons into New York.
    1817 Mr. Patterson imported Devons into Baltimore.
    1818 Hon. Rufus King imported Devons into New York.
    1825 Henry Thompson imported Devons into Maryland.
    1835 John Cowlin imported Devons into New York.
    1836 Patterson imported Devons into Maryland.
    1839 Miles Vernon imported Devons into New York.
    1839 Francis Rotch imported Devons into New York.
    1841 Mr. Patterson imported Devons into Maryland.
    1842 Daniel Webster imported Devons into Massachusetts.
    1845 Massachusetts Society imported Devon into Massachusetts.
    1848 Wainwright imported Devons into New York.
    1850 Van Renssler imported Devons into New York.
    1850-52 Ambros Stevens imported Devons into New York.
    1851 Col. Morris imported Devons into New York.
    1851-56 G. Vail imported Devon into New York.
    1851-52 Mr. Wainwright imported Devons into New York.
    1851 Abigail Catlin and C. N. Chase imported Devons into Connecticut.
    1851 W. R. Sanford imported Devons into Vermont.
    1852 Patterson imported Devons into Maryland.
    1853 Geo. Vail imported Devons into New York.
    1853 Howard McHenry imported Devons into Maryland.
    1854 Mr. Peters imported Devons into Georgia.
    1854 John Allen imported Devons into Connecticut.
    1856 Patterson imported Devons into Maryland.
    1857 Mr. Linsly imported Devons into Connecticut.
    1858 Col. Hoe imported Devons into New York.
    1860 Patterson imported Devons into Maryland.
    1865 Mr. Cameron imported Devons into New York.
    1868 Patterson imported Devons into Maryland.
    1872 J. C. Brown imported Devons into Rhode Island.
    1876 J. Murray imported Devons into Maryland.
    1879 Frank Brown imported Devons into Maryland.
    1886-88 John Hudson imported Devons into Illinois.
    1893-99 Dr. Morris imported Devons into Pennsylvania.
    1893 A. S. Warden imported Devons into Pennsylvania.
    1912 James J. Hill imported Devons into Minnesota.

From these importations descended the Devons which we have today in the United States. Some of the early breeders of this country who have contributed much time to the breeding and improvement of Devon cattle are:

William Patterson of Maryland bred Devons from 1817 – 1835.

Geo. Patterson, his son, bred Devons from 1835 – 1863.

S.&L. Hurlburt of Connecticut bred Devons from 1819 – 1856.

Samuel Baker & Son, Freeman Baker of New York bred Devons 1830 – 1904.

Harvey Dodge of Massachusetts bred Devons from 1845 – 1883.

James Bill of Connecticut bred Devons from 1845 – 1914.

Harley M. Hall of Vermont bred Devons from 1846 – 1878.

H.M. Sessions of Massachusetts bred Devons from 1850 – 1881. (Mr. Sessions edited the first Devon Herd Book of this country, 5 volumes.)

E.H. Hyde of Connecticut bred Devons from 1851 – 1890.

James Buckingham of Ohio Bred Devons from 1856 – 1912. (Mr. Buckingham was secretary and edited the first four volumes of the second series of the Devon Herd Books.)

Joseph Hilton & Sons of New York bred Devons from 1857 – 1906.

Dr. J. Cheston Morris of Pennsylvania bred Devons from 1861 – 1920. (Dr. Morris was President of the American Devon Cattle Club for many years.)

Ward Parker of New Hampshire bred Devons from 1865 – 1890.

L.P. Sisson of Virginia bred Devons from 1866 – 1916.

Mr. Sisson was Sec’y and Treas., of the American Devon Cattle Club, from 1887 to time of his death 1916.

J. Banker of Pennsylvania bred Devons from 1874 – 1904.

Wm. H. and B.F. Jones of Pennsylvania bred Devons from 1879 – 1905.

Thos. D. Coffing & Sons of Indiana bred Devons from 1882 – 1920.

John Hudson of Illinois bred Devons from 1884 – 1903. (Mr. Hudson came to this country from Devonshire, Eng., and imported for the foundation of his herd thirty Devon cattle.)

The Devons in 1900s America

Jeremy Engh, the President of the American Devon Cattle Association, gave this speech at the World Devon Congress in 2004. It appeared as an article in the periodical BullDust, No. 60, 2004, 2nd issue. We excerpt the material describing the history of the breed in the 1900s in America:

In the history of most breeds, herd books to record the breed’s lineage were generally established after a more desirable kind of animal had been produced and the breed was increasing in popularity with more and more herds being established. The herd books were established to protect the purity of the established strains. Generally, a breed society was formed later to serve as a guardian for the genetic integrity of the breed and to promote the general interests of the breed and its breeders. The establishment of herd books and organizations to protect and promote Devon interests in America followed this sequence.

An American Devon Herd Book was begun in 1855 by Horace M. Sessions of Massachusetts. His first volume included a reprint of Volume 1 and 2 of the English herd book. Sessions published five volumes with the last appearing in 1879.

James Buckingham, a Devon breeder from Zanesville, Ohio, began publication of the American Devon Record in 1881. The first four volumes were published under his direction, bringing Devon registry records up to May 1,1887.

Mr. Buckingham, with the aid of several other prominent Devon breeders, was instrumental in organizing the American Devon Cattle Club on March 26, 1884, at a meeting in Pittsburgh’s East End Hotel. The American Devon Record became the official herd book of the Club, which published six volumes under its watch. Like most other livestock registry associations in the United States, the American Devon Cattle Club found the cost prohibitive to produce a limited edition herd book. Volume 10, the final volume of the American Devon Record, was published in 1947. Duplicate registration certificates were maintained in the breed’s registry office for verifying the ancestry of registered animals and to protect the genetic integrity of the Devon breed in the United States.

After the death of L.P.Sessions, Secretary of the American Devon Cattle Club, in 1916, the Club was reorganized and incorporated under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the American Devon Cattle Club, Inc. The corporation operated under that name for 53 years until it was changed to its present name, Devon Cattle Association, Inc., at an annual meeting of the membership in Springfield, Massachusetts, on January 22, 1971.

On October 11th, 1978, a Devon Cattle Association, Inc. was formed as a Missouri nonprofit corporation. A merger of the old Massachusetts corporation into the new Missouri corporation was approved by the respective members on November 19th, 1978. The merger became effective January 1st, 1979.

The registration, promotion, and improvement of Devon cattle in the United States are now the primary functions of the Devon Cattle Association, Inc.

In Types and Breeds of Farm Animals published in 1920, Professor Charles S. Plumb, commenting on the status of the Devon in America, said “For a breed with such an old and creditable history it is a remarkable thing that it should have come to such a subordinate place among well-known breeds in America.” In the early 1970’s, a question still asked frequently was why a breed with “so much in its favour” was not better known and playing more of a major role in America’s beef industry.

The late Ben K. Greenhorseman, veterinarian, and Devon breeder from Texas — perhaps shed the most light on the question when he commented in the fall of 1973: “The Devon is the best kept secret in America and the breeders made it that way!” The breed received little promotion and remained largely in the hands of small breeders and farmers. They were successful in “making the best better.” However, they had a ready market for whatever surplus stock they had available for sale and, thereby, devoted little time and few dollars to promoting their breed and telling “the Devon story” to American cattlemen. Also, the American Devon Cattle Club was small with only limited funds to devote to an aggressive promotion program. It appears that without so many strong traits in its favor, the Devon breed would have disappeared from the American agricultural scene forever.

All of that changed in the late 1970s. The registry was reorganized and the board of directors expanded. The breed was placed in the public eye and the response was wonderful. Dr. Stewart Fowler’s (the newly appointed executive director) value to the breed and industry was immeasurable. Few people realize that the DCA was the first US cattle association to implement performance data recording with the 205 day weight for weaning and the age of dam adjustment. Soon other breed associations realized the importance of performance data and followed suit. But then disaster struck. Several major breeders in the United States disassembled their herds for various personal reasons and the association became stagnant.

The DCA lost its sense of direction and stopped progress. Why? I cannot say. But for several years the only Devon activity in this country was from the hobbyist and Devon Lover. Other breeds however continued the course and continued to move forward with the development of tools such as EPDs and carcass data recording to name a few. Several years passed with the requests for information dropping from the thousands in the late 1970s and early 1980s to less than 200 in 1985, less than 100 in 1986, and less than 50 in the years between 1987 and 1992. In 1994, the Association received seven requests for information. Membership also fell between 1985 and 1995, 19 new members were entered into the association records during that time. The numbers of registrations and transfers were equally dismal. Point being that once again if not for the fortitude of both Devon cattle and Devon breeder, the breed and the history accompanying it would have been lost from this country’s agricultural scene.

On September 9, 1998, in a living room in West Virginia there was an annual meeting of the Devon Cattle Association. At this meeting were 11 people and after formalities and the review of a seemingly hopeless endeavor, Richard Evans was named president. In the months to follow I Jeremy Engh) worked closely with Mr. Evans and again we did a much needed reorganization of records. Everything was put on a computer and again progress was initiated.

No disrespect is intended toward Mr. Bernard Mayeux who kept a sinking ship afloat and ran the association during this dismal period. Instead I (Jeremy Engh) thank this man for his work when others did nothing to help because having also worked in this Association without support I can attest to the heartache that accompanies that task. (It should be noted here that in 1998, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy had listed the Devon in their critical category. This category is of the highest concern and indicates a breed with “fewer than 200 annual North American registrations…”)

In 1998, the Association saw real progress with the first newsletter in five years. New membership, information requests, registration, and transfers all increased. In 2000, the new association joined Breedplan and moved the registry to Australia, information requests tripled. Ten new members joined the organization and things really started to look up. A surge of attention began pouring in from people wanting to Grass-farm. In 2002, everything continued to look good for the Association and later that year, when Gearld Fry and Ridge Shinn (of the Bakewell Reproductive Center) discovered the Devon, interest was again kicked into high gear….”

Devons Today

Devons in the 21st Century

Most of agriculture has moved rapidly along the continuum from agrarian to industrial agriculture in the 1900s to the detriment of the family farm, the environment, and human as well as bovine health and well being. The agricultural system in America is broken.

The Bakewell Reproductive Center was started in 2002 with the premise that a healthy agriculture is critical to our survival as a spiecies. Concentration in the form of CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and the resulting dependence on fossil fuels as well as herbicides, pesticides, and manufactured fertilizers is a central part of the problem facing agriculture and society.

The concept of grass-farming appeared from a mix of agricultural possibilities as the one that could heal agriculture, the land, and people in America. The dovetail of the market needs as a result of a number of serious public health problems — for example, BSE or Mad Cow disease, e-coli, obesity, and heart disease — with the availability of a healthy meat from ruminants that contains the proper balance omega-3 and omega 6 fatty acids plus cancer-fighting CLAs (Congugated Linoleic Acids) is a rare occurence.

Once the Bakewell Reproductive Center began to sort through breeds to find ones that would work in a 100% grass-fed program, we found that the diversity and variability among the existing stocks prevented us from providing large volumes of a consistent, high quality product to the consumers. We then turned to ultrasound and linear measurement to find cattle with the quality and quantity to satisfy the market.

Devons

Cattle first had to meet our 100% grass-fed protocol (see www.hardwickbeef.com) and then also meet our standard for intramuscular fat, tenderness and volume of meat. We found that a certain percentage of cattle of the “English” breeds and some crossbreds of these breeds did meet our criteria. In the process of sorting through numerous cattle we found that one breed, the Devon, always had the quality characteristics we were seeking (that is, intramuscular fat and tenderness) although many individuals did not have the volume of meat we desired.

We became very enamored with the Devon breed and eventually found a number of females that met our exacting criteria. The challenge was to find sires that met our criteria. We traveled to see and measure some of the bulls in America and found they came up short in the area of volume of meat-indeed a number of breeders had been trying to breed the Devon in a way that would make it more acceptable to the feedlot industry. There was an attempt to make them taller (read slower maturing), to put some leg under them, and in general to make them larger.

At that point, we decided to broaden our search for suitable Devon sires to the rest of the world. We started in New Zealand and Australia since their health status would allow importation of genetic material to the US. We were looking for sires that would be prepotent, reproductively superlative, and have a high volume of high quality meat.

Rotokawa Devons

Rotokawa Devons: The Key to Grass Farming

We were thrilled to find exactly what we were looking for a short way into our search. Ken McDowall, manager of the Rotokawa Stud in Wanaganui, New Zealand, had been aiming at our target for 25 years.

Ken McDowall with a mature bull.

This herd of Rotokawa Devons met all of our criteria:

1) Reproductive viability: Fully 100% of the Rotokawa first calf heifers have bred back successfully over a 25 year period. This is a remarkable statistic that speaks to their reproductive viability.

2) Early maturity: Young bulls raised at the Rotokawa Stud on a diet of just grass (no fitting on grain) weigh typically weigh 1000 to 1050 pounds at 400 days. We feel these cattle will reach finish weights of about 1200 pounds in 16 to 18 months here in the US. It currently takes most cattle, British cattle in the northeast for instance, 22 to 24 months to finish on grass and hay. The early-maturity of this subset of the Devon breed means producers could skip one whole winter of feeding grass-finished cattle.

3) Calving ease: Birth weights have not been recorded for the past twenty-five years because there have been no calving problems. There have been a couple assisted births over the years-assistance amounts to turning a calf -no pulling. This means there is no calving ease EPD -there is simply calving ease.

4) Superior prepotent bulls: Because of careful close breeding and ruthless selection, the Rotokawa bulls stamp their progeny with their great quality. Calves from Rotokawa 688 are now on the ground in Maine, Texas, North Carolina, Wyoming, New York and in many other states. The consistent quality in these calves from cross-bred mother cows and purebreds of other breeds is startling. The concentration of quality by breeding close and ruthless selection is apparent on the ground.


5) Repeatibility and consistency: Because careful attention has been paid to selection for the total functional animal and a careful breeding plan has been executed for twenty-five years, the cattle from this Rotokawa herd are remarkably similar. In June 2003, we at Bakewell Reproductive Center decided to import 12 live heifers from the Rotokawa herd, and we picked 12 out of about 27 heifers available. It was a difficult task since they are so consistently good. It is a lot like judging green tomatoes at the county fair: all the exhibits are good and one must search diligently to find flaws.

Calves sired by Devon bulls
Plane with heifers (in crate) arriving at Stewart Air Base in New York-ready to move to the US quarantine center.

6) Quality: As well as all these remarkable production pluses, the meat from this subset of Rotokawa Devons has high intramuscular fat and tenderness. The fine bone (see the photo of Rotokawa 636) and correct structure of these animals results in a high volume of the high dollar retails cut. Docility of the Rotokawa Devons correlate directly to the tenderness of the meat.

Ken McDowall & the World Devon Congress 2004

Ken McDowall’s Address to the World Devon Congress 2004: The Importance of Purity of Genetics

WORLD CONFERENCE 2004

Over the last 25 years or so there have been major changes in most of the breeds of cattle, being farmed world wide, for domestic beef production. Most of these changes have been based on selection criteria and performance on a per animal basis and with grain supplementation. This may work in economic terms where grain is available at cheap prices and harsh winters require stock to be housed for long periods, but if a quality product is the requirement and better prices are available for that product, grass feeding is undoubtedly the preferable method of rearing and finishing cattle.

Ken McDowall with a mature bull.

To a large extent the changes have come about through the erroneous premise that bigger just has to be better, but when all the factors involved are weighed up it becomes very obvious that this is far from the true situation. Large rangy cattle have higher maintenance requirements and are less able to withstand stresses in feed availability, which, in a totally grass feeding situation, are just a fact of life. Run on good country which has higher rain fall the damage to pastures can be catastrophic and costly in both loss of production and reinstatement of the damage. Seldom do these larger cattle produce the higher quality beef that is suitable for the top restaurant trade and this is the lucrative market.

The other, and what I consider the most disturbing aspect of this drive to produce a larger rangier animal, has been the infusion of outside genetics into most breeds of cattle. While I agree wholeheartedly with the initiative of the researchers to explore the possibilities of achieving greater production by these methods, it has now created a situation where pure breed genetics are difficult to source. Unfortunately it is the English breeds that are traditionally of shorter stature and producers of bigh quality beef that have suffered the most and it is going to be a long way back to redress the situation. The trend bas been so widespread that the remaining gene pool of the pure breeds is so restricted that this could be a problem in itself. The use of stored semen from older stock will help with the recovery but it will be a difficult challenge for many studs. Also with the health problems and subsequent restrictions in recent years international sharing of the available pool of genetics has been difficult. Brazil especially has not been able to contribute outside blood lines for use elsewhere, but with improved techniques maybe this will be addressed before too long.

At an internationally recognized show I attended in 2002 I was looking around the cattle and stopped behind a jet black animal in the Saler section. An enthusiastic elderly chap came quickly across and enquired whether I was interested in Salers. I assured him I was interested in all cattle but considered the animal in front of me was not a Saler. My attention was drawn to the fact that the sign indicated the area was designated for Salers and that their Stud banner showed they were Saler breeders. The discussion continued in similar vein for some time but finally he changed tack and confessed that these were now his son’s cattle and he was just giving him a break but be really agreed with my views 100% and he was equally concerned. At this same show in 2003 in the parade of Champions at least four breeds, which are normally various shades of brown in colour exhibited totally black animals which demonstrates the extent and acceptance of this infusion of outside genetics into what should be pure breeds.

In New Zealand where these infused sires have been used it has mainly been through the use of imported genetics rather than actually being bred locally and some studs have recently even published written apologies to their clients, in the local press, assuring them that they are working towards reinstating the traditionally bred stock in their studs.

My involvement with stud cattle started over fifty years ago when at the age of twelve I started a run of over twenty years assisting at the Palmerston North show as a steward. I was not from a farming background but already had decided that farming was where I wished to be. I have very clear memories from those times of cattle being expelled from the show grounds because the purity of their pedigrees were not acceptable, and the upset it caused so it is a changed scene today.

One of the most important factors for both commercial breeders and stud breeders alike is the repeatability factor of the sires that they purchase to advance the quality of their own stock. They go to great efforts, studying performance data and critically examining the animals, before deciding on which animal they should purchase to take their stock in the direction they wish to pursue. In most cases this repeatability is only achievable if the background genetics are relatively stable. The physical appearance only has a value as an indicator of the genetic make up of that animal. If he does not leave those characteristics in his progeny he has little to offer in progressing the quality of the herds he is used in.

Prior to moving into stud cattle I worked for many years with stud Romney sheep and repeatedly had the frustration of purchasing a ram at the National ram fair that was, in my view, the perfect sire for the job but when mated left every different style in the spectrum imaginable. To achieve any conformity of progeny I had to select the ram lamb from that first crop, who had the visual attributes of his sire and use him, dispatching the expensive purchase to the back paddock. I soon learned to inspect the flocks on the farms to prevent the risk of buying a sire that was not a representative sample of the average type from the flock. For example a fine wooled ram from a predominately strong wooled flock has little chance of leaving consistently fine wool in his progeny.

I feel that the infusion of outside genetics into beef cattle at the level we have seen over recent years is going to give these same problems as the genetics in the herds has been so destabilized; repeatability is going to be difficult to achieve. Unfortunately it is the commercial farmer who is going to be carrying a large portion of the problem for some time until the seed stock producers put things to right.

I have long held the view that to crossbreed constructively, it is essential to have purebred stock to do it with, and nothing I have seen over recent years has altered that belief.

I feel that a considerable amount of the confidence that stud farmers gained that they were on the right track was the result of not fully appreciating the lift they were achieving from the heterosis effect of the infused genetics. I firmly believe that the heterosis potential is the prerogative of the commercial breeder and should be left intact for their use. Is it not better that a purchaser leaves your property with a sire that he is relatively pleased with and returns for further sires, thrilled with the results of the progeny from that bull? The most important factor is how the progeny perform and if the heterosis potential has already been dissipated the results will inevitably be less favorable.

For this reason I have difficulty accepting the theory that there is any advantage in the use of composites. As an example I had a client who had been using Devon bulls for a number of years and consistently been in the top bracket with his weaners at the Hunterville cattle fairs. I did not hear from him for quite a while, but when I did, I discovered that he had sold his property and bought another in Hawkes Bay. Near to the new farm was a very vocal breeder of Composite bulls and taken in with all the glossy publicity material, he had decided to give them a try. At the stage when he contacted me, he had just weaned his second crop of calves, still from the same herd of cows, by the composite sire and for the second time he was so ashamed of them, he was too embarrassed to offer them in the sale yards with his name on the gate. Needless to say he wanted to return for another Devon bull. Fortuitously this trend towards infusion of outside genetics has not been widespread in Devon cattle and I am sure that with the natural attributes of Devon cattle, there is little inclination amongst breeders to do so. The ability of the Devon to thrive in a wide variety of environments demonstrates the versatility of this great breed. Probably, as a result of their development on the moors of Devon, they have an amazing ability to thrive on less than best which in New Zealand’s situation, with total grass grazing, is a reality. The meat quality, in whatever situation they are farmed, is as good as it gets and is the envy of other breeds.

The docile nature and general temperament make them easy to manage and a pleasure to be amongst and this factor alone has resulted in many farmers changing to using Devon sires.

The soundness and longevity achievable from Devons is another major plus and allows maximum benefit to be generated from superior animals as they continue to provide generations of replacements and durable sires for the commercial farmer.

I had a client contact me a month ago regarding a bull he purchased in 1993. He had decided to reduce his workload and commitment, by changing over to simply running dry stock, so had sold his cows. When the agent saw, the by now 13 year old bull, he was reluctant to book space for it in the works, but advised him to find another home for him, hence the phone call. He had been the only bull used since he was purchased, with a herd of around thirty cows, and in that time had not left a dry cow. I am sure there are a number of Devon breeders that could recount similar experiences of proof of the outstanding fertility in the breed. The demand for the quality beef produced from Devon cattle for use in upmarket restaurants is insatiable in the short term and this situation is unlikely to change for some considerable time as more and more chefs become aware of its value.

A leading Angus breeder in New Zealand who has been using our Devon sires over his large commercial herd has developed a market in the Western states here and the beef is being marketed as Angus Pure. For some reason he is reluctant to co-operate in publicizing the success he is achieving with Devons.

With commercial farmers now realizing the improved returns available, both from the weight gain aspect and the higher per kilogram payout, it is our job to supply the sires of traditional Devon type they require to capitalise on this demand.

It has always confounded me, since my discovery of the abilities and attributes of the Devon breed, that although they were in many cases the first cattle introduced to countries as they were settled in the modern context, they have not played a greater role in the beef industry before. I am no closer to answering that question but I do believe it is finally happening and we should all do all we can to meet this demand with quality stock that will ensure the reputation Devon cattle already enjoy is not only maintained but enhanced. To this end I would encourage delegates to look towards tightening their breed association rules to discourage the possibility of outside genetics damaging the unique respect that our breed enjoys. I can not see any attribute in any other breed that could be infused into Devons to advantage and so the old saying very aptly applies of “if it is not broken don’t try to fix it”. They are fine just the way they are and we should be proud to be Devon breeders nurturing them for the benefit of future generations.

The customer at the top class restaurants expects his steak to be in the superlative category not sometimes but every time and to achieve this consistently requires a stable genetic base in the herds from where the meat is sourced. This guarantee of quality that these chefs require can be delivered using Devon sires over carefully selected dams and it is our responsibility to make these sires available.

Ken McDowall is the Manager of the Rotokawa Stud and the creator of the Rotokawa Devons.

Bulls from the 1960s

Devons: Bulls from the 1960s

Here is a window into the past. Forty years ago, the Devon Cattle Quarterly and the Devon Quarterly published descriptions of the kind of Devon bulls that were available for AI use. Potheridge Masterpiece was a foundation sire in the Rotokawa Devon herd and brother of this Potheridge President.

Website about the Devon breed of cattle
Ken McDowall, Master Breeder

Ken McDowall, Master Breeder

Introduction

Ken is always surprised when people refer to him as a world-class breeder, but the Rotokawa herd has put him in that category.

Ken’s background in agriculture runs deep. His father, Frederick Henry McDowall, was a pioneer in the New Zealand dairy industry and published a huge two-volume set calledThe Buttermaker’s Manual as a result of his research and knowledge developed at Massey University in the 1950s. It is still used as a reference in the industry.

When Ken followed his father’s agricultural path, he brought a scientific approach to his studies, to his employment/internships, and indeed to his whole career as a premier breeder of sheep and cattle. From working as a teen in the stockyards and fairgrounds, he knew he wanted to raise livestock. After his formal education, he worked on three carefully chosen farms to gain intimate knowledge of three different approaches to the seed stock business.

With this preparation, Ken started the Rotokawa stud and picked the foundation Devon cattle from an old herd. For thirty years, by careful breeding, and constant improvement and selection, Ken has created a remarkable subset of the Devon breed.

Ken worked with us for eight years to increase the numbers of Rotokawa Devons in North America. Bakewell imported twelve heifers and, through an exclusive agreement, sold Rotokawa semen. A number of small herds were established using embryo transfer (ET) as the method of multiplication. Through artificial insemination (AI), Rotokawa bulls have bred cattle across the U.S. and Canada — and indeed, across the world, with many progeny in England, Brazil and Australia.

Calves from Rotokawa sires are stunningly similar to one another. They were bred for prepotency — the ability of the bulls to consistently stamp their progeny with their traits. The quality of this subset of the Devon breed is reflected even in the half-blood stock produced by AI.

Very quickly we knew we had the answer to producing meat that is consistently tender and tasty. We also had an easy-fleshing, early-maturing animal that gives producers a critical economic advantage.

The Devon breed historically has been the “Butcher’s Breed” because of the quality of the meat produced as well as the excellent cut-out (because of the breed’s fine dense bone). The major reason the Devon became a rare breed in the United States in the past 40 to 50 years is because they don’t work on feedlots. The breed has the “easy-fleshing” trait and when fed concentrates, Devons get overly fat, which is not a desirable trait in the conventional feedlot-dominated beef business.

Now, with the new excitement about 100% grass-fed beef, we all need to return to cattle that are easy fleshing on grass. Especially given the evidence that health problems attributed to eating beef actually result from eating beef that has been raised on grain.

It takes a long time to establish a large population of animals from a small number of individuals. The purchase of the entire Rotokawa herd will have a significant impact on the production of healthy, 100% grass-fed beef and therefore will impact public health and the future of the rural economy.

From Ken McDowall’s speech at the World Devon Congress

Prepotency

“One of the most important factors for both commercial breeders and stud breeders alike is the repeatability factor of the sires that they purchase to advance the quality of their own stock… In most cases this repeatability is only achievable if the background genetics are relatively stable. The physical appearance only has value as an indicator of the genetic makeup of that animal. If he does not leave those characteristics in his progeny he has little to offer in progressing the quality of the herds he is used in.. ..”

Purebred Stock

“I have long held the view that to crossbreed constructively, it is essential to have purebred stock to do it with, and nothing I have seen over recent years has altered that belief. … “

Hybrid Vigor

“I firmly believe that the heterosis potential is the prerogative of commercial breeders and should be left intact for their use. Is it not better that a purchaser leaves your property with a sire that he is relatively pleased with and returns for further sires, thrilled with the results of the progeny from that bull? A leading Angus breeder in New Zealand who has been using our Devon sires over his large commercial herd has developed a market in the Western states here — and the beef is being marketed as Angus Pure! … The most important factor is how the progeny perform, and if the heterosis potential has already been dissipated the results will inevitably be less favourable. …”

High-End Markets

“The ability of the Devon to thrive in a wide variety of environments demonstrates the versatility of this great breed … . The meat quality, in whatever situation they are farmed, is as good as it gets and is the envy of other breeds … .”

“The demand for the quality beef produced from Devon cattle for use in upmarket restaurants is insatiable in the short term and this situation is unlikely to change. “

Introduction: The Purchase & Importation of the Rotakawa Devon Herd

Read about this in our 1st Newsletter.

Beginning in 2002, Ridge Shinn evaluated many cattle in a variety of different environments in North America and other parts of the world. They found many excellent cows but few good bulls, and few subsets of cattle that could be profitable in a 100% grass operation. They began to hone in on the Devon breed — but still, no excellent bulls. Then Gearld visited Ken McDowell and the Rotokawa Stud in New Zealand, and discovered a large herd of Devons with all the qualities needed to thrive on grass, provide consistent high-quality beef, and turn a profit for the producer. And this herd included excellent bulls.

Ken worked with Bakewell for eight years to increase the numbers of Rotokawa Devons in North America. Bakewell imported twelve heifers and, through an exclusive agreement, sold Rotokawa semen. A number of small herds were established using embryo transfer (ET) as the method of multiplication. Through artificial insemination (AI), Rotokawa bulls have bred cattle across the U.S. and Canada — and indeed, across the world, with many progeny in England, Brazil and Australia.

Calves from Rotokawa sires are stunningly similar to one another. They were bred for prepotency — the ability of the bulls to consistently stamp their progeny with their traits. The quality of this subset of the Devon breed is reflected even in the half-blood stock produced by AI.

Here is a photo that illustrates the PREPOTENCY of our bulls. The cow in the background (Angus x Simmental) was bred to Rotokawa 982 with the resulting meaty calf.

Very quickly we knew we had the answer to producing meat that is consistently tender and tasty. We also had an easy-fleshing, early-maturing animal that gives producers a critical economic advantage.

The Devon breed historically has been the “Butcher’s Breed” because of the quality of the meat produced as well as the excellent cut-out (because of the breed’s fine dense bone). The major reason the Devon became a rare breed in the United States in the past 40 to 50 years is because they don’t work on feedlots. The breed has the “easy-fleshing” trait and when fed concentrates, Devons get overly fat, which is not a desirable trait in the conventional feedlot-dominated beef business.

Now, with the new excitement about 100% grass-fed beef, we all need to return to cattle that are easy fleshing on grass. Especially given the evidence that health problems attributed to eating beef actually result from eating beef that has been raised on grain.

It takes a long time to establish a large population of animals from a small number of individuals. The purchase of the entire Rotokawa herd will have a significant impact on the production of healthy, 100% grass-fed beef and therefore will impact public health and the future of the rural economy.

This section of our Website will give you all the information about the well-deserved popularity of the Devon Breed.