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The old becomes ‘new’ again

By Staff | May 20, 2011

Dan Schmitt checks on his red Devon cattle on grass at Hi-Lo Acres, near Marshalltown. The cattle are bred specifically for grass-only feeding.

MARSHALLTOWN – They look like the old cattle paintings during America’s settlement days.

Red Devon is a cattle breed with chests so deep it makes their forelegs look short. 21st century packing houses will discount the meat by 25 percent because it’s too lean.

Everything about the way members of the Red Devon Society manage this breed goes against conventional wisdom line-breeding, grass fed and never tasting grain, calves aren’t weaned until the cow weans it, heifers not bred for the first two years, bulls not allowed to reproduce until they reach 28 months.

What’s going on here?

“We are producing solely for the health benefit of our consumers,” said Dan Schmitt of rural Marshalltown, “not the packing houses.

Dan Schmitt looks over pamphlets and other information sources he uses to both learn about red Devon cattle and to help educate others about the breed and the nutritional benefits of the cattle.

“They don’t want our cattle and that’s OK with us. We produce for local consumption.”

Schmitt, who operates Hi-Lo Acres (high performance and low maintenance) is one of two known Iowa cattlemen who are breeding red Devon cattle. The other is Jamie Hostettler near Dubuque.

With densely packed genetics from line breeding – a form of breeding to keep the offspring genetically close to a superior ancestor – and being fed grass only, meat from Schmitt’s small herd was found to contain high levels of omega 3, a cancer-fighting property, and low levels of omega 6, an essential fatty acid that must be obtained through food.

The health benefit is derived from the grass diet, said Gearld Fry, an Arkansas producer and Schimtt’s mentor.

“The grass will do that for any cattle breed,” Fry said. “But we breed strictly by selection to get that deep-chested animal.” Fry said Devon are a breed that came to the America’s with European settlers.

Fry explained that a cow with a shoulder width that matches the width of the hindquarters will be not only a low-maintenance cow, but will be an efficient grass-burning factory and her offspring can easily gain 2.5 to 3 pounds daily on grass once weaned.

In fact, Schmitt said once the calf reaches 1,000 pounds, it’s already reached quality beef stage and that’s when he’ll process it through a local meat locker and sell it, at $3 per pound, through direct retail to individual families.

Schmitt’s been raising Devon cattle for eight years, crossing Devon genetics into a starter herd of black Angus, which he purchased at a discount that were suffering in a drought. This spring his cows produced his first seven-eights Devon calves. His goal is to reach purebred stage and then begin a heifer program.

“Dan is really doing a good job,” mentor Fry said. “He started with some sorry cattle. By conventional standards he’s way ahead of the industry.”

In fact, Fry said that during a May 2 visit to Schimtt’s farm, he purchased two bull calves for $5,000 from Schmidt. He plans to sell them in a bull show.

“We are producing solely for the health benefit of our customers.” —Dan Schmitt Marshalltown-area producer

“And I can guarantee the performance of these bulls,” Fry said, as long as owners maintain the breed’s management protocols. “We’re in the food business and we control genetics to make this happen.”

Devon bulls are genetically dense, Fry said, outlining the program that breeds fathers to daughters, uncles to nieces, cousins, and half-brothers to half-sisters. Doing this will keep producing a consistent calf body shape, bred specifically to grow on quality grass and pack on a lean, heavily-muscled body.

After breeding, it’s all management. This includes:

  • Calves suckle until weaned by the cow, which allows the calf’s gut to mature enough to handle grass only.
  • Heifers are bred at two years old, which gives her system time to mature enough to reach the desired body shape, process grass efficiently and safely produce offspring. Schmitt said in his eight years, he’s had to pulled only one calf, and that was from his first heifer because he bred her before the two-year waiting period. Her body wasn’t fully ready, he said, and she never developed properly afterward.
  • Bulls are held back from sire duty for 28 months to avoid wearing them out early. “If we wait,” Fry said, “the bull will be the herd sire for 8 to 10 years.”
  • A strict grass diet. “God created cattle to eat grass, not corn,” Schmitt said. “Corn to them is like liquor to the human body. They can tolerate a little bit, but it’ll upset their digestive system.”
  • Managing quality hay ground and pasture grass. “The first cross with Devon in any breed will make the meat more tender and tastier,” Schmitt said, “but you still have to have quality grass.” He said he also found that even on poorer quality grass, Devon tend to gain better than Angus.

His pasture has some brome grasses, but this spring he seeded Sudan sorghum as a summer feed. His hay ground gets regular applications of fertilizer and gypsum.

“I’ve got dairy-quality hay,” Schmitt said, adding that his calves continued to gain weight over the 2010-2011 winter eating only his hay.

“It’s a mercy to be able to produce a breed of cattle that can help prevent cancer,” Schmidt said, “and we are producing solely for the health benefit of our customers.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453 or at kersh@farm-news.com.

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