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The Under-Appreciated Red Devon

The Under-Appreciated Red Devon

By Joshua Mechaelsen

At Gwenyn Hill Farm, livestock are a crucial part of our farm’s ecosystem. We strive to raise meat, milk, eggs, and fiber in a way that contributes to the biodiversity and health of our soils, pastures, woods, and fields. In addition to providing delicious and nutritious beef for our customers, our herd of Red Devon cattle are an integral part of this farm system.

Red Devons originated in their namesake county in Southwest England and were first imported to what is now the United States at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1624. Today our devons mainly provide meat, but for the colonists at Plymouth, they provided draft power first and foremost, moving logs and other materials. Eventually they also provided food and surplus income for the colony. Strength and docility were important qualities of the Devons at Plymouth in the 17th century, and they are still important traits for our farm, and Devon breeders around the world, 400 years later.

British breeds of cattle are, on the whole, smaller than cattle breeds from Continental Europe, and the Red Devon is no exception. Their smaller stature however does not compromise their ability to provide draft power and a finished carcass. In fact the smaller size means that they can be more efficiently brought to harvest weight on coarser pastures. Coarse pasture is the polite way of saying that the grass is not growing as well as you would like. Since much of our pasture at Gwenyn Hill has a long history of being tilled for row crops, we have many such coarse areas in our pastures where nutrients and topsoil were depleted.

That is where the real benefit of grazing beef comes into play for our farm. By planting formerly tilled, highly erodible fields to perennial pasture, we are attempting to eliminate and reverse the loss of nutrients and topsoil that occurs when soil is perpetually tilled. Our Red Devon Cattle are integral to this process because they trample and graze the grass, dropping nutrient-rich manure in the process, which is a crucial step to recycling nutrients like Carbon, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus and incorporating them into the soil. Permanent pasture, even recently grazed, loses much less sediment to wind and water erosion than a tilled field.

Because we graze rotationally, on any given day, the vast majority of our pasture acreage is off limits to our cattle. In high summer, it can be weeks, even months, before the cattle return to graze a specific patch of grass. In that meantime, those acres are fully available to the many species of wildlife that call Gwenyn Hill Farm home. These are not reconstructions of prairie, but, as analogs to native grasslands, these pastures still perform many of the ecosystem services associated with grasslands–habitat for large and small species, water filtration, nutrient retention, and many others–while also providing food and employment to the community and reducing the historical impacts of agriculture to the soil

When you buy our Red Devon beef, either in person at our Farmstand or on our Grazecart online shop, you directly support the continuation of those ecosystem services while you also receive nutrient dense, flavorful meat for you and your family. 

After living, working and studying in Iowa, Washington DC and rural England, Joshua Mechaelsen contributes to Gwenyn Hill Farm as the Land and Livestock Assistant.

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