The Life Cycle of a Special Milking Devon Cow
by Drew Conroy of Berwick, ME
Past President of the American Milking Devon Cattle Association and Professor of Integrated Agriculture and Animal Science at the University of New Hampshire
This story is about a special cow, she was an American Milking Devon. I sold her 8 years ago, as we were leaving our farm to spend a year in Africa, and she was due to have her 13th calf. I knew she would not last forever, so she went to a farm where the owner hoped to keep her genetics going.
My students and children would say I too often tell stories about about her. I suppose they are right, as I do often use her in examples for lessons about agricultural history, animal behavior, animal breeding, and genetics. She was the kind of animal that affects your life, and you realize later that you may never have another animal with the same impact.
Her registered name with the American Milking Devon Cattle Association (AMDCA), was Alderbrook Cindy. However, I called her Emily, which was a mistake, that stuck for 16 years. When I purchased her, as a calf, I thought her name was Emily, because the farmer had shown me so many animals in the herd the day I decided to buy her. I returned a week later to purchase her and still thought of her as Emily. However, when the registration papers finally came through, and I realized her name was Cindy, her nickname was already established.
I had Emily for 16 years, and in 40 years of raising cattle, she was my favorite animal. I am not one to be sentimental about cattle, as I have bought and sold many animals, without regret. In fact, as an Agriculture and Animal Science professor at the University of New Hampshire, I tell my students, many of whom want to be veterinarians or veterinary technicians, that I am a food animal professor. My life has been spent working with animals you raise for money, sale or meat. This is often a shock to students who have only had pets, and believe everyone would spend whatever it takes to treat an animal that is sick or dying. I have had plenty of dogs and cats, which are pets, but even with them, their value I often equate to a farm animal, which irritates my family to no end. Even my pets need a job and when they can no longer do their job, their value in my mind is greatly diminished. Yet, I do not get rid of my “pets” when their working days are over. However, the lesson I try to share with students is how farm animals are different than pets.
So the story with Emily started as a childhood desire to raise Devon Cattle. As an ox teamster, I was always in awe of Devon cattle and, I have to admit, jealous of people who had them. The teams of oxen I raised as a 4-H’er were more common dairy breeds that were much cheaper to buy. The Devon bull calves destined for oxen always seemed to command a price about 2-3 times the price of dairy calves. Their small size, attentiveness, activity level, and scrappiness intrigued me. Their rich history in the United States and even in their native England could be found in many old books about cattle breeds. This encouraged me as a boy to do research into the cattle and find everything I could about them. I was particularly intrigued that they were the animals of choice raised by small farmers in the Northeast USA, since the early colonists.
When my wife and I bought our 16 acre property in Berwick, Maine, in 1990, it was mostly forest. I had a team of Dutch Belted oxen at the time, so we called it Oxwood Farm. The Dutch Belted oxen in a way led to me buying Devon cattle. The Dutch Belted team were purchased as calves from Paul Daniels of Irasburg, Vermont. He also introduced me to the work of the ALBC, now called the Livestock Conservancy, when I was teaching at Sterling College in Vermont. His farm, cattle and work with ALBC inspired me to join the association.
As time went on and we left Vermont, I was hooked on the idea of working to conserve rare and historic breeds of livestock. This stemmed in part from having a small farm, where I knew I would not be producing milk commercially. Keeping rare breed cattle also meant as a small farmer I could likely have some impact on the breed. I knew given my work with dairy cattle and dairy farmers that the chances of having a significant impact on the more common breeds would not likely be possible with only a few animals. However, with a less common breed, a few animals could have an impact on the breed. I also had an interest at the time of showing cattle, so having a rare breed also meant I had a better chance of exhibiting breeding animals that stood out in the show ring.
Emily was purchased in Waterbury, Vermont from a farmer named Howard Mansfield. He was like a relic from another age, with a small hillside farm, scant grass in his pastures, and an interest in making a living near Stowe, Vermont with Devon cattle. With Vermont having the Devon cow on the State flag, it was entirely fitting that I purchase my first Devon cattle there. I bought two steers and a heifer, and this was the beginning of what was my longest relationship with a cow.
Emily was the epitome of what I thought a cow should be. She was healthy and trouble free, all of her life. She was well adapted to her environment and my farm, and best of all the two of us were well suited to each other’s temperament. Emily was fast moving and somewhat high strung, but intelligent. She was easily halter broken, learned to respond to her name, and come when I called. However, she also learned that if it was not feeding time, or the vet was in the driveway, that she could refuse to be caught by hand. She easily recognized I was up to something that she did not want to do. However, never once in 16 years did she escape or break through our electric fence. She ate less than other breeds of cattle I had, she learned to hold her hooves up so I could trim her feet, and was bred most years on the first service.
On the flip side she was extremely protective of her calves, putting on a big show of pawing the ground and roaring at visitors when they came to see her calf. Even when the calf was months old, she put on this show into her teens. Although I have to admit it was more than a show, because she would charge strangers, much like the cow in the movie Ol’ Yeller. I could get along with her at calving, but had to be careful as her hormone levels created an animal that I think would have taken on a bear or a pack of coyotes. Even my Australian Cattle Dogs learned to steer clear of her after calving.
Emily’s first calf we called Devil. My wife named him, because as an 85 pound calf, and she a 900 lb. cow, he did not come out easily. This was the one time that things did not go as planned with Emily. I was away from home showing my oxen Buck and Tom at the Topsham fair in Maine. My wife Janet was at home when Emily went into labor. I left with no doubt that Janet could handle it, as she had delivered other farm livestock. However, labor lasted a number of hours and over this time Janet saw Emily transform into a real witch, who roared, pawed the ground and once the calf was out even tried to kill it, with her horns. I had seen cows reject a calf, but never one that tried to kill her own calf. This is not unheard of in the breed, especially for a first time calving. Some farmers separate them with a fence and let the cow settle down. I tried this and every other trick, like tying her legs to get the calf to nurse, while she was restrained. It never worked.
We ended up milking Emily for her first lactation, which turned out to be a good thing. She tolerated us milking her, and we got a sense of how much milk she produced. That first lactation, she gave at most about 20 lbs. of milk per day, as a 900 pound heifer. Her milk was much like the milk from a Jersey, rich and creamy. There was plenty for the two of us and the calf. We also developed our relationship further with daily milking. I did learn that while Emily was well behaved with my wife or I milking her, she had no tolerance for anyone else milking her by hand. This proved to be a shortcoming, especially when we wanted to go away overnight.
A year later, in 1995, Emily gave birth to her second calf. This time despite the calf again being over 80 lbs, she took care of the calf exquisitely. We decided we were not going milk Emily this year, but after a few days we noticed that she was producing more milk than the calf we called Rex could consume. We had to milk Emily to empty the udder for a few weeks, until he could take all the milk she produced.* Rex grew like a weed with more than 20 lbs of milk per day. We later put him together with his half brother Eli to make a team of oxen. I had the team for 4 years. They were featured on local TV, competed at New England Fairs in pulling contests and shows, and were everything I could have wanted in a team. They were sold as four year olds to Old Bent’s Fort in La Junta Colorado, where they lived out their years, to a ripe old age like Emily.
- * As a past President of the American Milking Devon Cattle Association, I have traveled far and wide visiting herds. In those travels, I frequently saw Devon cows with udders that had been damaged by producing more milk than a calf could consume, especially the first few weeks. This resulted in Mastitis in some of their quarters and subsequent blind quarters for the life of the cow. The breed can produce more than a calf will consume, and if that is the case they may need to be milked. Yet, it should be noted that most breeders today allow calves to nurse exclusively, which has led by natural selection to animals that produce significantly less milk than more common dairy breeds.
Owning Emily inspired me to become involved in the ALBC, now the Livestock Conservancy located in Pittsboro, North Carolina. We attended national meetings, where I was later invited to conduct workshops and write articles for their newsletter. I went on to become the Vice Chair of the organization, and later the President of the American Milking Devon Association. While it was a learning experience to serve both organizations and meet Devon breeders from all over the United States and World, I have to admit, I had more fun with my small herd of Milking Devon cattle, that were all related to Emily than I did being involved in the politics of running non-profit organizations.
Over 16 years Emily gave birth to 13 calves. I missed one year because I was out of the country when she should have been bred. I then tried to breed her for spring calving, which did not work out. After that I bred her every fall for a summer calving. Two of the most significant calvings were on my birthday two years in a row. I do not think I could have planned it if I tried, but again she was a cow that had a significant impact on my life. On one of those birthdays, Janet said to me, “This is perfect, you got your gift from Emily, so I do not need to get you anything this year”.
While there are many other stories I could share about Emily, the story I most want to share is a visual collage how a cow ages. As Emily was more of a pet than any other cattle I have had, I took many photos of her. These are the visual changes seen in an American Milking Devon cow over 16 years.