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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Summer 2004 > Reviving a Heritage Breed

Reviving a Heritage Breed

ABOVE LEFT  Don and Heather Minto, farm managers, tagging their cows.
ABOVE RIGHT  Rare Red Devon cows and their calves at Watson Farm.

Old has become new again at SPNEA's Watson Farm in Jamestown, Rhode Island, one of four sites in this country chosen to receive im-ported rare Red Devon cattle from the Rotokawa herd in New Zealand. Red Devons are a heritage breed, of the same type as the first cattle-a bull and three heifers-shipped to Plimoth Colony in 1623. These animals, preferred for their docility and working ability as well as for the milk and meat they provide, were instrumental in the success and survival of the early colonies. We know that Conanicut Island, on which Watson Farm is situated, was used for grazing cattle as early as 1632, when the charter for Newport, Rhode Island, included the use of "the grasses of Quononicut" as pasturage. The colonists developed a pastoral plantation system, shipping their products all along the Eastern seaboard and as far away as the Caribbean.

Heritage breeds like Red Devons, fed entirely on grass, were common in New England until the early twentieth century, when dramatic changes in agriculture gradually rendered multi-purpose breeds obsolete. Today, health concerns have brought interest in heritage breeds to the fore because of their propensity to perform extremely well on grass alone. For a farm like Watson, dedicated to preserving the working landscape, raising cattle on grass is not only historically appropriate but also better for the animals, the farmer, the consumer, and the environment.

Don and Heather Minto, Watson Farm's managers, worked closely on the project with an organization dedicated to developing genetically superior livestock, known as the Bakewell Reproduction Center. Three pregnant cows, selected for their genetics and bloodline integrity, arrived at the farm last June and shortly gave birth to three female calves. They will be the basis for rebuilding the herd at Watson Farm and elsewhere, thereby contributing to the sustainability and preservation of small working farms. It is exciting when we can use the past to protect farming for the future-when something old can lead the way to renewal.

-Don Minto
Watson Farm Manager

This spring, Watson Farm hosted farmers interested in our preservation efforts and management practices as part of the World Devon Congress. The Farm is open to the public from June 1-October 15 on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Watson Farm Sheep Shearing Day is May 8, from 12 noon to 4 p.m.

Reviving a Heritage Breed