Heritage Livestock Breeds: Why They’re Important

1 / 5
The Gloucestershire Old Spots breed is valued for its foraging ability and maternal instincts.
2 / 5
Jersey cows deliver abundant milk that's high in butterfat.
3 / 5
Manx Loaghtan sheep are hardy grazers prized for their meat.
4 / 5
Traditional animals offer unique strengths that make them worth preserving. The endangered Choctaw pig flourishes on open range.
5 / 5
Texas Longhorns forage on scrub and weeds, and can survive without water for days.

Throughout the centuries, the world’s farmers have developed thousands of livestock breeds. But now, at least one breed becomes extinct each month, and 20 percent of the world’s cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry breeds are currently at risk of extinction, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). How did we get here, and how can we reverse this trend — and why should we care? The story is complex, but the future can be bright if we act now.

Whether you’re a farmer or a consumer, preserving the genetic diversity of animals is a critical issue. Traditional, or heritage, animals bring many beneficial characteristics to a homestead: They’re often sturdier and more adaptable to local conditions, and in general their slower growth compared with industrial hybrids results in richer flavor and more delicious products. Don’t believe me? Try Devonshire clotted cream from Devon cattle, sugared hams from Mulefoot hogs, or roasted Rouen duck. These animals also deliver beneficial services: Pigs help cultivate land and remove stumps, some cattle breeds make excellent draft animals, and goats can control invasive plants. Traditional breeds are crucial for farmers who face environmental struggles, suffer inbreeding challenges with their animals, or seek niche markets to stay competitive and profitable. Successful heritage animal breeds can keep the food supply secure by lending qualities that are essential for the long-term health of breed populations — for example, the traditional Cornish chicken is the foundation for the world’s broiler industry.

Horning In on Hardiness

Historically, farmers operated on smaller acreages with a wide variety of usable plants and animals. Globally, more than 7,000 known breeds of cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep and goats have been recorded. The interaction of criteria, culture and climate has hatched a diversity of breeds. In other words, every breed had a purpose (criteria) for which it was created by a particular culture, and the breed could be expected to thrive in the climate in which it was created. These marvelously adapted animals needed little input from their keepers.

The Texas Longhorn is a perfect example (see photo on Page 32). This cattle breed was developed over hundreds of years from a foundation of hardy Spanish cattle, which arrived in the earliest days of North American colonization. Ranchers needed tough cattle that could thrive on poor seasonal forage, handle predator pressure, and produce and raise healthy calves. Over time, a breed emerged with unique horns that could fend off predators and push through thick brush. These cattle developed powerful jaw muscles to forage on scrub, weeds and cacti. They could also go without water for days. Despite the tough living conditions, Texas Longhorns could begin producing calves before 2 years of age and continue to produce annually into their 20s. These cattle shaped the culture and economy of Texas for generations, producing wonderfully savory meat.

Much has changed for the Longhorn during the past century. Ranchers have brought in larger cattle breeds that are less adapted to local conditions, and the Longhorn gradually became a nostalgic symbol instead of the region’s primary breed. Longhorns were crossed with other cattle to produce larger, more impressive horns — what traditional breeders call “Wronghorns.” These cattle have overtaken purebred animals in great numbers. The last census conducted by the Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry in 2013 found scarcely more than 1,200 true Texas Longhorns left in North America. The breeds that are replacing the Longhorn don’t survive as easily on native forage or birth calves without assistance, making them poor choices for homesteaders seeking sturdy livestock.

Larger + Faster = Weaker

The scale of farming changed during the 20th century. Industrial farms discovered the efficiencies of feeding large amounts of grain to animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to produce slaughter-weight animals in a shorter amount of time. Refrigerated transport became available to safely and quickly deliver meat to markets. The larger, faster-growing, grain-fed breeds began to be raised on a commercial scale never seen before. At the turn of the 20th century, many cattle breeds foraged the world’s pastures and grasslands. Today, only a handful of meat breeds are common, and only one — the Holstein — dominates the dairy industry.

This concentration has led to a dramatic loss of genetic diversity. In an analysis of the United States Holstein herd, the Journal of Dairy Science reported that virtually all the cattle in the herd are descended from only three bulls born in the 1960s, which in turn were related to only two bulls from the 1880s. This has caused a serious genetic bottleneck, resulting in large declines in fertility for the breed, which numbers more than 8 million in the United States. Plus, intensive breeding combined with high-grain diets has produced an unnatural situation in which the dairy industry’s Holstein cows generate three to four times more milk than their calves need.

In some cases, this intense selection for production has affected the animals’ overall well-being by creating massive bodies saddled with physical limitations. This is especially true of poultry. The bodies of industrial birds are often so large that their legs and hearts fail from the stress of supporting such bulk. Commercial turkeys have become so heavily breasted that the males can no longer breed naturally, making the industry completely dependent on artificial insemination. To put it in context, a wild tom naturally weighs between 12 and 20 pounds, whereas a commercial turkey can reach up to 40 pounds or more. Guinness World Records has listed the largest domestic turkey at an astounding 86 pounds! (To learn how you can breed your own homestead strain of chickens, see Heritage Chicken Breeding: Why Not to Rely on Chicken Hatcheries.)

Changes on the Plate

Breeding has affected the flavor and nutrient content of our food as well. Slow-growing livestock reared on pasture have been replaced by fast-growing commercial breeds designed to be raised in confinement on feed concentrates largely composed of corn and soy. Side by side, the edible differences resulting from these two types of livestock management and breed selection can be quite stark. The differences are especially striking with pork. The National Pork Board created “The Other White Meat” campaign to promote consumption of commercial pork. Yes, the meat of industrial hogs is pale in color, but it’s also pale in taste when compared with pork from pasture-raised heritage hogs. Chefs and consumers agree that pastured pork has a richer, more robust flavor than its commercial counterpart.

The shift to grain-fed industrial breeds has also led to declines in the essential nutrients we need from meat, eggs and dairy. In his article Omega-3s and More: The Importance of Fat in a Healthy Diet, writer Richard Manning explains how the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is dramatically altered in products from factory farm animals raised on soy and corn — both of which are high in omega-6s. Because of this change in livestock feed, the standard North American diet now contains four times more the amount of omega-6 fatty acids that it should for optimal health.

Competitive Genes

Heritage breeds offer ample resources to support productive, sustainable farming practices. Because traditional animals are typically hardy and self-reliant, they will thrive on pasture. Also, homesteaders can select the heritage livestock breed best suited to their particular climate or other conditions. Trying to raise poultry in the snowy North? Chantecler chickens are exceptionally cold-hardy and are good layers — even in winter. Need livestock that can thrive in heat and humidity? Ossabaw Island pigs fit the bill, and they manage to survive in lean seasons by storing remarkable amounts of body fat during times of bounty. Battling a parasite problem on your land? Gulf Coast sheep are highly resistant to parasites and foot rot disease. They can prosper in places where other sheep breeds could not.

Locally adapted breeds’ resiliency is particularly valuable in our time of global climate change. The FAO’s report Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Integration of Genetic Diversity into National Climate Change Adaptation Planning is designed to help governments around the world recognize the resources held by their locally adapted breeds. The FAO cites that 50 percent of known sheep and goat breeds and 30 percent of cattle and horse breeds are well-adapted and thrive in arid climates, yet little information about them has been documented. The trend to convert farms to industrial production with commercial breeds is still on the rise everywhere, and the window of opportunity is closing for the discovery, documentation and conservation of the vitally important genetic resources represented by traditional breeds.

Spreading Germplasm

The process of conserving a breed is complex, and the most successful projects occur with a long-term approach. This philosophy is the cornerstone for The Livestock Conservancy’s mission, which is to protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction. For nearly four decades, the organization has been a reliable resource for scientific research, population and studbook management practice, technical and marketing assistance, and public education.

Keeping and using endangered livestock on farms is an important conservation strategy. Animals need to continue to evolve and adapt to their surroundings, but we also need a way to secure important genetics to halt the loss of significant bloodlines. In the United States, for example, the survival of Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs will be a challenge because we’ve lost several sow lines. Luckily, these lines still exist in the U.K. Also, The Livestock Conservancy has partnered for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP). The NAGP maintains one of the world’s largest frozen germplasm repositories for livestock, including The Livestock Conservancy’s collection of rare-breed germplasm — that is, living tissue that contains a species’ genetic makeup. This germplasm can inject new life into heritage breeds that may have declined because of inbreeding or neglect. The NAGP is our backup reserve, but as homesteaders and breeders, we can make a critical contribution toward preserving these breeds through the work we accomplish on our farms.

Jeannette Beranger is the research and technical programs manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She maintains rare breeds on her North Carolina farm, where she indulges in a fondness for traditional chickens and horses. Beranger co-authoredAn Introduction to Heritage Breeds.