Nashville Zoo’s Grassmere Historic Farm is Helping Preserve Critically Endangered Milking Devon Cattle

by Jon D. B.

Right here in Music City, the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere is doing their part to preserve a cattle species that helped build America.

Grassmere has been a part of Nashville for over 200 years now. The house, known as the Croft House, was built around 1810, making it the second oldest residence in Davidson County that is open to the public. The estate has evolved with Nashville over the centuries in numerous ways, including taking on the Nashville Zoo in the 1990s.

Today, Grassmere’s Historic Farm helps keep these hundreds of years in history alive. Quite literally in some instances, as is the case for one of our country’s most historic livestock breeds: American Milking Devon cattle.

A mixture of horses and cattle graze the front pasture at Grassmere decades before the Nashville Zoo moved onto their land. (Tennessee Virtual Archive, Grassmere Collection, 1786-1985)

“We have two Milking Devon steers. They’re amazing cattle,” offers Grassmere Historic Site Manager Tori Mason. “The American Milking Devons are a heritage breed,” which, as Tori notes, means “a breed that’s been around for a very long time that is also considered endangered or threatened.”

Quite a few other animals reside on the Historic Farm, “but its the heritage breeds we have that we are helping preserve,” Tori adds. “There’s a great organization, The Livestock Conservancy, that oversees such endangered livestock breeds. And here at Grassmere, we have American milking Devon cattle, Cotswold sheep, belted Galloway cattle, and Sicilian donkeys registered with the conservancy.”

Milking Devon cattle hold a fascinating history and remain prized draft animals to this day. So much so, in fact, that the species is the reason the Livestock Conservancy was founded in the 1970s.

What are American Milking Devon Cattle, Exactly?

But what are American Milking Devon cattle, exactly? On the surface, this endangered breed of livestock grows a short, coarse red coat. Both sexes grow white horns with black tips. Devons are medium-sized cattle, with cows (females) averaging 1,100 pounds. Bulls (males) can grow to 1,600 pounds.

19th century painting of Milking Devon Cow, Landseer, Sir Edwin Henry. (Photo by: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

According to the Livestock Conservancy, Devon cattle originate in the southwestern peninsula of England. It was there that the breed was developed over centuries. The name “Devon” comes from Devonshire, where many of the cattle were bred.

The Devons’ rise in prominence is multi-faceted. The breed’s production of both high-quality beef and the rich milk used in Devonshire cream gave rise to their “Milking Devon” name. Yet these animals were also the quickest and most active oxen in the British Isles for wagons, plows, and the like. They’re incredibly hardy, too, like highland cattle. What more could you ask for in livestock?

Milking Devon cattle were quite literally everywhere in Western agriculture for hundreds of years as a result. English settlers brought them to the Americas in droves, and Devons helped build the country we know today.

‘They really formed the backbone of manual labor on homesteads, something Grassmere needed throughout the 1800s’

“This breed actually came over with the first batch of English pilgrims and has been here since the start of English colonization in the 1600s,” Tori cites. “These are big, big cattle, so they would work as oxen to pull enormous farm equipment. They really formed the backbone of manual labor on homesteads, something Grassmere needed throughout the 1800s.”

American Milking Devon steer, Grassmere Historic Farm, Nashville, TN (Photo credit: Jon D. B., Outsider)

Devons became well established in New England during the 1600s, then spread down the East coast to places like Nashville. In fact, the breed made it as far as Florida during the 1700s and 1800s. Devon oxen were also among the draft animals of choice on the Oregon Trail during America’s Westward Expansion. And all of this documented history means herd books for the breed have been around since 1855 – a rarity for modern livestock.

But then the Industrial Revolution happened. Soon, technology would outpace livestock with tractors and machines. “This is when people stopped breeding and keeping Devons,” Tori says. “Today, they’re facing extinction as a result.”

Moreover, the introduction of more productive multi-purpose breeds like the Shorthorn would weed the Devon out. This would prove detrimental to the breed, making them incredibly rare outside New England by 1900. The breed would’ve gone extinct entirely if not for New England dairy farmers and teamsters protecting the breed with the American Milkind Devon Association in 1978.

‘The Devon remain a favorite exhibition animal at historic sites like Grassmere because of the fascinating history above

Through this, the Livestock Conservancy, and organizations like the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, the breed now has a stable population. There are over 500 Milking Devon cattle in existence today. The Devon remain a favorite exhibition animal at historic sites like Grassmere because of the fascinating history above.

Historic Site Manager Tori Mason discusses their American Milking Devon steers with Contact Keeper Dakota on the Historic Farm. (Outsider, Jon D. B.)

“In Nashville’s past, and the same can be said for most of the South, almost everything that your family needed you either made or grew,” Tori says.

“There were very few things that would’ve been bought, for many reasons. And families accomplished this largely through animals; through livestock like the Milking Devon. So we’re proud to help keep their legacy alive today.”

Today, visitors can walk the Grassmere Historic Farm year-round. There, you’ll find Nashville’s very own American Milking Devon Cattle and a whole lot more of this city’s remarkable past.