The distinctive South Devon copper-red cattle were first introduced to New Zealand in 1969, and their cross-breeding for beef herd improvement is now firmly established across the country.
South Devon studs nationwide are on show this month with delegates from across the globe converging on NZ for the breed’s 2023 World Convention in Wellington on November 25.
As part of the conference programme, delegates are on a 17-day tour of NZ, visiting South Devon breeders in both the South and North Islands.
South Devon cattle, the biggest English beef breed, date back to the 16th century. They hail from the southwest of England, where they and their predecessors have provided Plymouth with beef and dairy products throughout its history.
By 1800 they had established themselves as a breed, although the South Devon Herd Book Society of England was not formed until 1891.
By 1912 the breed had overcome many prejudices and was drawing favourable attention in the show ring and in national trials, where they were noted for their rapid growth to an enormous size without impairing the quality or quantity of their milk.
The South Devon as a meat producer really began to achieve worldwide prominence during the 1960s when weight gain recording became popular and the breed’s excellent performance was recognised.
The copper-red cattle – though black does now feature in the breed too – can be found the world over, thriving in the cold of North America and the heat of Africa.
Delegates from as far afield are part of the global tour, coming from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia to join NZ breeders for the convention and stud tour. The event is held every three years, the last convention being hosted in South Africa.
Their wonderful temperament make the South Devon easy to handle and work with, earning them the tag of “Gentle Giants” according to the breeders, who were hosted by Alister and Jeanette Maxwell at Rosehill South Devon near Methven as part of the tour.
Rosehill farm, at the foot of Mt Hutt, has been in the Maxwell family since 1973 with the Rosehill South Devon Stud established in 1986 following the purchase of six heifer calves from the Snowview Stud at Sheffield.
In 1987 40 mixed-age animals were purchased. Rosehill now runs a substantial stud operation, producing stud stock for sale as well as finishing prime beef cattle.
The 300ha Rosehill Farm also takes in a Coopworth sheep breeding flock of 1500 and 450 hoggets with a large percentage of the lambs finished and sold under contract to a meat processing company.
There are 24 recorded tree blocks on the property covering 45ha, including a small poplar tree trial running under the Poplar and Willow Trust and due for completion in 2029. The farm also has 7ha of fenced wetlands, leaving 245ha of effective stock land.
The goal for Rosehill South Devon is to get the cow herd fully polled, with the current replacement rate at 55% towards achieving this.
South Devon World Association president Mervyn Rowe, who hails, like the breed, from the Plymouth, England, region, said the world convention is important to keep the breed in the forefront.
Rowe’s South Devon pedigree was established by his father in 1947.
“We have been breeding pure pedigree stock ever since, and that’s a difference to NZ. Here you call it stud; we call it pedigree.”
Rowe said this year key topics for the convention include genetics and genetic evaluation for ongoing improvement in the breed; and carbon footprint and emissions.
“We have to keep up with the technology and improvements. We have less cows now than 10 years ago so we need to keep ourselves out there in the global cattle game,” Rowe said.
“What is benefiting us now is people being more aware, more conscious consumers wanting to know where their food comes from and seeing the benefit of native cattle.”
A visit to the NZ Agricultural Show last week in Christchurch was a pleasing eye-opener.
“At the show it was very obvious the native breeds were shining. There were 80 pedigree South Devon cows. It is the same in the UK.
“It is very pleasing to see this as it indicates South Devon is not going to fall off the radar anytime soon and that’s why it is important for us to keep these world conventions going, to keep learning from each other.”
For John Miller from Cathcart in South Africa, the conventions are key to a small but thriving population of South Devon in his country.
“I like what I see here in NZ at Rosehill. I came to NZ especially to look at genetics as we are using a line of breeding second cross to better our own herd.
“We only have about four breeders and about 1000 cows, small but good and growing.
“I have been selling bulls now for 21 years. Last year I sold 30.
“The South Devon is a very good maternal breed. Getting the results with good genetics like NZ is important to me as I keep improving with the plan to grow my 380 cows to 450.”