Heritage Livestock Breeds: Why They’re Important

Traditional animal breeds benefit both homesteaders and consumers with their hardiness, adaptability, flavorful meat and genetic diversity.

| April/May 2016

  • Gloucestershire Old Spots
    The Gloucestershire Old Spots breed is valued for its foraging ability and maternal instincts.
    Photo by Robert Dowling
  • Jersey Cow
    Jersey cows deliver abundant milk that's high in butterfat.
    Photo by Wilfried Schreder
  • Manx Loaghtan
    Manx Loaghtan sheep are hardy grazers prized for their meat.
    Photo by Robert Dowling
  • Choctaw Pig
    Traditional animals offer unique strengths that make them worth preserving. The endangered Choctaw pig flourishes on open range.
    Photo courtesy The Livestock Conservancy
  • The Texas Longhorns
    Texas Longhorns forage on scrub and weeds, and can survive without water for days.
    Photo courtesy The Livestock Conservancy

  • Gloucestershire Old Spots
  • Jersey Cow
  • Manx Loaghtan
  • Choctaw Pig
  • The Texas Longhorns

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.



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