Heritage chicken and cattle breeds are generally better suited to small-scale homesteads than many modern livestock breeds. Their tendency to be dual- or even triple-purpose breeds is a noted plus for a family working with less room and fewer resources than a large-scale operation. Heritage cattle breeds are often both decent meat and milk producers, thriving on a grass-fed diet with less of a need for supplemental feed in comparison to modern cattle breeds. Similarly, heritage chicken breeds can be both notable egg layers and solid meat birds, generally only requiring a longer time to maturity than today’s chicken breeds selected for rapid growth.
Additionally, by choosing to raise heritage livestock on your homestead or farm, you are often protecting an endangered livestock breed. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), a nonprofit membership organization, works to protect over 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Many of the cattle and chicken breeds they work with are listed below. Look through the listing below of heritage livestock breeds to find out if one would be well-suited for your homestead, and to learn more about the history of these unique animals.
Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post the following profiles from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses.
Heritage Chicken Breeds
The Barred Plymouth Rock chicken is a year-round egg layer as well as a good meat bird.
The Black Australorp chicken is an active bird that can adapt easily to confined spaces and is a good egg layer in winter.
Cornish Game Chickens, also known as Indian Games, are an Anglo-Indian cross-breed usually raised as a show or meat bird (think Cornish Game Hen).
The very rare Delaware chicken matures quickly and can be used for organic and free-range chicken raising.
Dominique chickens were very popular in 19th century America for their self-sufficiency. They are good foragers that do well as free range chickens.
Dorkings chickens are a heritage poultry breed that was quite popular with the ancient Romans because of their five-toed feet. It is a seasonal egg layer but an ideal meat bird.
The Jersey Giant chicken is one of the largest of all chicken breeds. It does will in cold climates and lays brown eggs.
The New Hampshire chicken breed is a medium-sized bird, known as a good egg layer of large-size eggs, bred from the Rhode Island Red breed.
The Rhode Island Red chicken was originally a dual-purpose breed, but the most common strains today are selected to be strong egg layers.
Sussex chickens are good egg layers — producing up to 250 brown or tinted eggs every year — and they also make excellent meat birds.
The White Wyandotte chicken is a calm, maternal heritage chicken breed suited for cold climates.
Heritage Cattle Breeds
Heritage breeders admire the Ayrshire cow for their low-cost, grass-fed milk production.
Despite a history of triple purpose — beef, milk and draft — the modern American Devon cattle are primarily known as meat cows.
Irish-native Dexter cows are best raised as a family cow instead of part of a large herd, and breeders should also be aware of “dwarf factor” genetics.
Dutch Belt or Dutch Belted cows originate from Holland and are known for their distinctive coat and high-quality milk production as a dairy breed.
Galloway cattle mature quickly and produce a lean grass-fed beef on a diet with fewer grains.
The Guernsey cow is a British dairy breed with a great reputation as a milk cow with high production rates.
Highland cattle are suitable for rough terrain and harsh climates and are primarily a used as a meat cow.
The Milking Devon is a triple-purpose breed that thrives on rough, hilly pasture.
The Milking Shorthorn cow is a heritage cattle breed that is an efficient high-protein milk producer.
The Randall Blue Lineback breed is good-natured and intelligent, and they’re perfectly suited to alternative agriculture systems that incorporate grass-fed milk production.
Hardy and gentle Red Poll cattle produce enough beef and milk to work as dual-purpose breed, which makes them ideal as homestead livestock.
Barred Plymouth Rock Chicken and Red Poll Cattle Illustrations by Carolyn Guske