Why You Should Care about Heritage Breeds

There are several great reasons to preserve old and rare breeds, but raising them is also simply fun.

| March 4, 2008

heritage geese

Both the American Buff goose (foreground) and Pilgrim gander are included on the “critical” list of heritage breeds by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.


What color are the cows that produce the milk you drink? White with black spots? Maybe white with brown spots? What about black with a white stripe in the middle? Or a blue-gray speckled pattern? All those variations represent different breeds, but odds are that the milk you drink comes from Holsteins (white with black or brown spots). According to the Holstein Association, the group that registers pedigrees of purebred Holstein cattle, “nine out of 10 dairy producers [in the United States] milk Holsteins.” (By the way, the color of the cow does not affect the color of the milk she gives.)


Because Holsteins are such a popular breed, will other breeds become extinct in 50 or 100 years? What if other breeds of cattle produced milk with more desirable qualities? If groups such as the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) are successful, we’ll have as many breeds of livestock 100 years from now as we do today. The ALBC maintains a list of rare and endangered breeds of domesticated animals and promotes their preservation.

The ALBC’s watchlist for endangered livestock classifies rare breeds as “critical” (global population less than 2,000), “threatened,” “watch” and “recovering.” The system is slightly different for rabbits and poultry. In addition to numbers of animals, there are other criteria for the classifications.

Each breed of livestock has unique traits, though they may not be as productive as breeds that industrial agriculture depends most heavily on. “The productive life of a Holstein cow is between three and four years,” according to the Holstein association. But many heritage breeds, such as Dutch Belted cows, are often productive into their teen years. Dutch Belted cows are efficient milk producers on a grass-based diet with little additional grain. And grass-fed cattle produce milk with important health benefits to humans. Click here and here for more information.

Even More Fun than Cow Tipping

When you raise heritage breeds, you won’t simply preserve history, you’ll experience it. Most heritage breeds have an interesting story to tell: where the breed originated, when they were first imported to the United States, and who kept the breed going. Learning the history of the heritage breeds you raise can be an adventure!

You can also take pleasure in knowing that your livestock is unique — they’re not identical to your neighbors’ animals. Friends, neighbors and even people just driving by your homestead may stop and ask you about your unusual livestock. There is simply something fun about raising heritage breeds.

p l
4/11/2009 1:56:00 PM

(cont) Holstien thing. In any case, Grampa retired, and it wasn't long after that the farm folded, too, after having been operational for 30 years. Many farms in this area folded. The government required such vigorous testing and harvesting requirements, that the small farmers couldn't pull a profit. The farmer attempted growing domestic deer imported from Greenland, but the EPA or something shut him down, claiming that they were a wild species and he couldn't farm them. That's wierd, because they farm them in Greenland! Ugh. The farm is all but abandoned, now. The fields are harvested for hay, but the parlour is empty, the milk tank overgrown with blackberry vines. A big business dairy farm in this area, the only one remaining, harvests the hay, rents the barns and stores the hay, and brings out their poop sludge to dump in the poop sludge pond on the property, and that's about it. I might add that this company houses calves in tiny pens not much bigger than the calf, and houses their dairy cows in much the same manner but smaller space- on concrete in knee deep cow poo. Whenever I drive by, I see those poor cows crammed in there together and their bodies are usually dirty and covered in poo. It's no wonder there are so many germs that need taken care of, and they have to have a breed of cows that resists things that happen in that environment. Yet with all the housing developments going up where pastureland once was, and Uncle Sam putting his greedy fist in our pockets, who was to survive, but those willing to farm by any means possible? It's sad that my daughter is learning that milk tastes like that watered down stuff in the store, and she doesn't know how to teach a calf to drink from a bucket by letting him use her fingers. She doesn't know what it's like to coax a barn kitten out of the shadows, or roll down a big pile of cottonseed. She never got the opportunity to jump off a haystack on a r

p l
4/11/2009 1:44:15 PM

Grampa worked on a dairy farm when I was growing up, and I spent my summers there and many weekends during school. The herd was a couple hundred Holsteins and about 40-50 Jerseys. Grampa said that the Jerseys added that cream factor to the milk, since their milk was heavy in cream. Now that I am older, I think it's gross, but both breeds were housed in concrete floor enclosures, and they scooped off the ankle deep poo sludge into a tank in the ground that had a grate over the hole. The Holstiens were invariably not very friendly. Even the young calves resisted human contact, they were scared of us. The Jerseys shied away, but could eventually be plied with a handful of grain or hay into letting me scratch their head, and then soon we were friends. One in particular, would push her way to the front of the herd in the milking parlour, while waiting to be milked, and would lick the back of my head or munch on my hair (I was blonde... did I look like hay?) until I turned around and gave her some attention. We called her "47", for a name, since that was her ear tag number. She even tolerated being led around by her neck chain by Grampa while I rode on her back (kind of bony, but still fun). By far, the Holstiens produced more milk, and Grampa said that they held up better to diseases and the things that happen in the barn, such as hoof rot. The farmer eventually phased out the Jerseys, and I was sad. I remember once that he just gave me a free calf, because it was a cross breed between Holstien and Jersey, and he said it would get hoof rot and be crippled. I didn't know how he would know that about it as a calf, but we raised it to adulthood, and true to his statement, it developed a problem with its feet and could hardly walk. This was after being raised in a field with minimal mud. So maybe there's something about that breed? Anyways, the meat from him was tough and stringy, so I don't know if that's a Jersey thing or a

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