The oldest cattle breed on record in the U.S. will be celebrated during a seven-day mini congress originating at Lakota Ranch in Remington.
Jeremy Engh, of Lakota Ranch, Treasurer of Red Devon USA said that breeders of Devon from all over the world will be descending upon Culpeper County May 20-28 for the weeklong mini congress that will highlight the breed and help farmers find new ways to market the historic cattle.
According to Engh, there are five countries that are the primary breeders of Devon cattle – Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, the U.S. and Brazil. Every four years, they have a gathering in one of the countries to compare notes and show the breed, with a full congress being held in the United States once every 20 years. This mini congress is just a precursor to what Engh hopes will be a giant celebration of the breed’s 400th anniversary of coming to America in 2024.
“We travel the country and look at Devon cattle,” Jeremy Engh said. “Devon are an old British breed and the oldest breed on record in this country. Devon cattle were in the old days coveted because they were triple purpose. They were beef, they were milk, they were oxen. They were docile, they lasted a long time. They could adapt to different environments. That’s why they were heavily used in the development of this country.”
Engh said that the breed fell out of favor because farmers leaned toward feedlots, focusing on the quantity of beef and not the quality. Now, there’s a resurgence of Devon because they are smaller – meaning you can have more head of cattle on smaller acreage – and for the quality of their beef.
Their other trait is that they perform well on only grass fed diet – which Lakota Ranch is known for. Only five percent of cattle in the world can only feed on on grass, which makes the Devon appealing.
For the past nearly 20 years, there has been an uptick in the demand for grass fed beef farmed without antibiotics.
“I would say that at the turn of the century there’s a noticeable spike in the interest in grass fed, but also in Devon cattle,” Jeremy Engh said.
Engh said that the health benefits of 100 percent grass fed beef is driving the market, pointing out customers get three times the Omega-3s and Omega-6s with grass fed Devon. What beef enthusiasts look for is the amount of marbelization on beef and Devon marble as well on grass as other breeds do on corn. Engh said that the smaller carcasses of the Devon – about 1,000 pounds generally – can produce as much beef per acre than a neighbor with 1,400 pound carcass animals.
The Engh family have farmed at Lakota in Remington since 1991, but have a history with Devon going back to the 1950s and Jeremy’s grandfather Dr. Otto Engh. Dr. Engh established a hospital in Arlington called the National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation which was at the time exclusively for polio, according to Dr. Gerald Engh, his son. Jerry Engh, now farming at Lakota with his son Jeremy, said that after the soft polio vaccine was invented, they had a hospital but no kids with polio. So his father worked with the federal government to convert the hospital to treat injured government workers and partnered with Senator Wayne Morse through the Hill-Burton Act to make it happen. That led to a friendship with Senator Morse, who was a patron of the Devon breed. Jerry started showing Devon cattle with Senator Morse and started farming them in 1980 in Nokesville.
“At the time we had Angus cattle but we started cross breeding with Devon bulls. We liked the Devon cattle because they were so easy to manage. We actually converted from being commercial Angus breeders to Devon breeders,” Jerry said.
Lakota has grown to 150 breeding animals which calve every year, plus another 100 Devon on leased farms in Culpeper, Fauquier and Westmoreland counties. They also have another 200 Devon-cross cattle.
The first Devon congress was held in 1980 in Great Britain, with the first U.S. congress coming in 1984. Every 20 years, the congress returns to the U.S. with the last occuring in 2004. The next full congress in the U.S. will be held in 2024, but the min-congress scheduled for the end of May will feature approximately 50 Devon breeders with close to 100 expected at Lakota on the first day of the tour. They’ll start in Virginia for three days, beginning at Lakota before visiting Stratford Hall in Montrose and then Longwood Farm in Catlett – where the breed’s national show will be judged by international judges. From there they will travel to Pittsburgh, Pa. to visit 4 Seasons Farm in Cranberry Twp., Pa., Kittanning Hollow Farm in East Brady, Pa. and Lamppost Farm in Columbiana, Ohio. They will then fly out of Pittsburgh to travel to Montana where they will tour Montana Red Devons.
The mini congress allows the breeders to share best practices and discuss the best ways to market the breed.
“It’s certainly sharing ways of production,” Jeremy Engh said. “We do total grass production here, which is foreign to them. In England, cattle are bred more for the showring. In Australia they are bred more for the feedlot market. New Zealand is mostly grass like us, Brazil is more like Australia. There’s different production goals but everybody respects good quality cattle. What’s working in your country for promotion? What’s driving them in the industry in a purebred breed like us with 200 members, you can’t make a living selling to each other.”
Engh explained that the breeders are trying to sell the Devon bulls to commercial Angus breeders and other breeders of cattle. While there are 200 Devon breeders, there are probably another 1,000 farmers who own a Devon bull they’re not using for purebred use.
Engh said that his family has exported bulls to England, Brazil, Australia, Canada and Mexico and they are hoping that the mini congress helps them find ways to expand their global reach.
“We would welcome breeders from around the globe,” Jeremy Engh said. “Argentina has Devon activity as well. There’s some Devon cattle activity in South Africa, there’s some small activity in lots of different areas. Again globally, there’s less than 20,000 of these animals. There’s probably 20,000 Angus cattle in the state of Virginia.”
The distribution method
Lakota Farm sells meet through a variety of different ways, including through their farm store and by their new custom ordering hub online (www.lakotafreshfoods.com).
“We also wholesale to butcher shops,” Engh said. “Primarily what we do is people start a grass fed beef business and they are producing 25 beef per year and all of a sudden they have an order for 50. We provide the overflow.”
Engh said that they are a small farm, but by East Coast standards they are considered big and as far as grass fed beef goes “we’re probably big as anybody.”
The farm has two full time employees while their kennel operation and the Lakota Hunt Club have one full time employee each. They farm approximately 726 acres at Lakota with a total of 2,100 including leased land.
Those cattle feed on a pure grass diet – which they interseed every pasture with a 20-seed mix every three years. In addition to the native fescue, they also add white hemp, sweet clover, alfalfa, yellow clover, red clover, crown vetch and groundhog radishes just to name a few. They also have a BMR Sudan grass that grows through the summer, which is common for hunting preserves to add bird cover.
Knowing what seeds to plant, when to plant them and how often is part of the farmer’s job – which can sound more like a scientist at times.
“I would say that’s not just grass farming but all facets of agriculture now,” Jeremy Engh said. “Twenty years ago, you could buy a bag of fertilizer, 50-50-50, throw it on the field and what you didn’t really need was no big deal because it was cheap. The cost of feed, fuel and fertilizer has all skyrocketed. The dairy farmer next door knows exactly how much energy is in that feed ration because he can’t afford to give a cow too much.”
Feeding the cattle properly and making sure preventive maintenance – such as a vaccination program and mineral program – is key to keeping the cattle profitable.
“If you do those things right, the cattle are healthy and you don’t have any problems,” Jeremy Engh said. “The big thing for us is we can’t treat with antibiotics to have our grass fed label. A sick animal that requires treatment, all of a sudden her beef value drops by more than half.”
Jeremy and Jerry tout their beef as some of the healthiest, as they stand beside King George, their prized bull. The history of their breed is of utmost importance to them and keeping the bloodlines going is something they often discuss leading up to the 2024 Congress – which marks the 400th anniversary of the breed coming ashore.
They hope to recreate the Devon coming ashore at the 2024 congress.
“The hope is we have Plymouth Plantation on board, which is another Devon farm where the first Devon cattle came ashore,” Jeremy Engh said. “The true Congress will take place up there, but our farm will be a big stop on the tour as well.”
They can track their bloodlines to the Lee family’s bloodlines at Stratford Hall – thanks in part to the copy of the 1853 American Devon Record they keep. It’s an offshoot of Davey’s Devon Herd Book which can trace back the lineage of every cow on their farm.
“No other breed has a book that goes back that far,” Jeremy said of the American Devon Record. “It’s kind of the crown jewel of our Devon memorabilia.”