by Linda Halley and Ryan Heinen | The Red Devon calves are arriving at Gwenyn Hill Farm. They are a sturdy 70 pounds at birth, ready, within minutes, to test out their legs and look for their first milk. They are born on pasture and won’t get familiar with the inside of a barn as long as they live at Gwenyn Hill. Their mothers will teach them how to shelter in the pines and on the south-facing slopes. They will imprint on them the need to be constantly grazing and moving and choosing the best plants to eat.
Choosing the Best Cattle for Our Conditions
Believe it or not, not all breeds of cattle are equipped for this kind of life. Before we acquired a beef herd, Ryan did quite a bit of research. What breed would thrive on grass, be enthusiastic grazers, and walk on sound feet and legs without tiring? Which would gain weight and produce flavorful meat on pastures without grain in their diet? Some breeds tolerate extreme heat, like the Brahman of India. We were looking for one that would tolerate the bitter Midwestern winter and the chilly, wet spring and fall. Which breed would naturally paw through snow in search of forage and eat snow as a water source?
Ryan was drawn toward the breeds of the British Isles. They tended to be smaller framed, maturing earlier on the lush pastures of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. They also were bred to withstand that famously biting, damp climate. The continental breeds of France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany were known for large, fleshy bodies with more meat, but not known to be as tender and flavorful.
British Cattle Breeds
Breeds of cattle change over time with breeders selecting for traits that meet their current needs. The most common British breeds, the Angus and the Hereford, have been extensively bred in the past 50 years in this country to serve the industrial meat production system that provides affordable, plentiful beef. To compare a North American Angus steer to one being raised in the UK would reveal a taller, narrower body that gains weight best on the grain-heavy diet of a feedlot. In England, the Angus still have the short legs and wide bodies of the old-fashioned line. Looking a bit like a barrel on legs, they have lots of room in their guts to digest all that pasture.
Our grass-based system would require the old-fashioned type of cattle, not the feedlot-ready animals so common in the US. Ryan eventually found a whole herd of registered Red Devons. While they are credited with being the first breed to accompany the Pilgrims to New England, they never gained the popularity of the Angus or Hereford. They have remained a breed favored by small holdings and homesteaders and, fortunately for farmers like us, they have retained those old-style characteristics.
The Docile Red Devon
Not having previous experience with the Red Devon breed, we asked around to other breeders in Wisconsin. Recommendations for Red Devons were positive, so we took a leap, buying the whole herd.
While some individuals weren’t star performers, overall the Red Devon breed met all of our expectations for cattle that are sustainable in a pasture-based system. A bonus characteristic is their docile nature. While being protective mothers who watch carefully over their calves, they are calm around people and sensible around fences. It is important to have docile animals when the farmer, on foot, has to move the herd, including bulls, to a new pasture daily. (click to watch a video of this)
If you have the opportunity to drive by, look for our Devons on the pastures south of Bryn Drive. The unflappable cows, grazing or chewing cud, keeping an eye out for the mischievous tribe of red calves are a satisfying sight to behold.
Ryan Heinen is the Land and Livestock Manager at Gwenyn Hill. In the early spring, livestock care takes over much of his time and energy, with new calves and lambs nearly every day for more than a month.
Linda Halley is the General Manager of Gwenyn Hill.