Help to Preserve Rare Heritage Breeds

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw

We have had a variety of heritage breed animals on our Ohio farm. We want to help save their genetics by raising them and their off-spring. Our lives are enriched not only by their presence, but also because of their produce.We currently have Dutch Belted cows, Narragansett turkeys, Dorking chickens and Red Wattle hogs. These old breeds are a pleasure to work with, satisfying to help preserve and provide excellent food. I’d like to add honey bees to that list not only because of their important role in homesteading, but because the chemicals in our conventionally-farmed environment makes saving them such a challenge.

In the last few years we have stepped to a new level in preserving these old breeds; we are learning ways of sharing not only their produce but also their genetics.

This spring we have had people from West Virginia come to pick up Dorking eggs for incubating. I recently shipped a dozen Narragansett turkey eggs to a family in Missouri and a Virginia couple has just bought one of our new Dutch Belted heifers. One turkey hen went to a local family. A tom-turkey and two hens went to another. Two local families have left bee equipment with us so that we can supply them with our spring bee swarms.

I enjoy sharing these precious animals for a variety of reasons. First, our little homestead can’t keep growing indefinitely. It will support only so many cows and poultry and I can care for only so many beehives.

Secondly, these breeds are quite rare and their genetics are precious. It enriches my life to be part of saving these breeds. It is also a pleasure to be able to enable others to have these animals on their homesteads.

Finally, by charging a “reasonable amount” for these animals, it helps our farm to financially survive. Charging a fee also helps assure us that the animals’ new families have the means to care for them.

Preserving Heritage Breed Genetics

Here is part of what we are learning as we learn to share heritage breed genetics:

Choose good genetics. I don’t think we need to be experts on genetics, but as owners of rare breeds, we are influential in the quality of genetics that will survive into the future. Therefore, when I am breeding Dorking chickens, I want to choose those with vigor—but not roosters who are too aggressive. I also occasionally use the “Standards of Perfection” book from the library to help me choose correct appearance for that breed.

We use similar criteria with the other animals. The Dutch Belted cows should be excellent for both milk and meat. We choose bulls (available through artificial insemination) that have offspring with those characteristics. We know the genetics and personalities of our cows and can share that knowledge with potential buyers.

Let others know what you have. To make this happen, it’s necessary to belong to associations where people can find you. The Livestock Conservancy has an excellent means of locating others who are saving rare breeds and are willing to share.

Individual breeds also have their own members. We belong to the Dutch Belted Association of America. Not only do people find others through this bulletin, but this small group has been immensely helpful in guiding us through our continuing learning curve with this critically endangered breed.

Develop necessary skills for sharing. Skills you’ll need might include: how to safely ship eggs, how to hatch poultry and how to capture bee swarms.

Shipping chicken eggs is 100% successful with some basic care. I gather eggs for no more than a week before getting them shipped because I want them in an incubator by day ten. When gathering, I keep eggs in the root cellar where it’s 55 degrees F. During this time, I collect my packing materials.

When it’s time to mail them, I make sure chicken eggs fit tightly in the egg carton by wrapping tissue around the smaller eggs. I close the carton with a rubber band, wrap bubble wrap around it two or three times including the ends. The carton needs at least two inches of shredded newspaper between it and the outside, sturdy box. Always imagine the box getting tossed, kicked and having a heavy parcel on top of it. Writing FRAGILE may not be helpful, but LIVE EMBRYOS may gain them a safe journey.

The large turkey eggs are individually wrapped in layers of bubble wrap. I use a different tie (colored yarn) at the air-cell end and attempt to keep this end up. More bubble wrap or shredded newspaper goes between each egg. This inner box is placed in a sturdy outer box with shredded newspaper between the two boxes.

Hatching chicks for others takes more time and resources than we seem to have in the busy springtime and so we probably won’t do that again.

As for sharing honeybees, we seem to have our quota of swarms from our ten hives. I find it simplest to have people bring their equipment here and allow us to “hive” a swarm for them. On the evening of their trip home, we use an entrance closure and a packing strap to assure them a safe trip.

I find it pretty amazing that we as individuals can play a role in saving rare breeds. I encourage you to make this part of your legacy.

Mary Lou Shaw is the author of Growing Local Food, available through MOTHER EARTH NEWS.