Why Raise Heritage Breeds of Livestock?

Reader Contribution by Kirsten Lie-Nielsen and Hostile Valley Living

Heritage breed animals are important elements of our farming history, and helpful additions to any small farm. Heritage breeds diversify a farm and the gene pool of their species, and often will add a colorful splash to your barnyard.

Our forefathers often had a more permaculture way of farming, not raising any one animal strictly for meat, milk, or eggs, but reaping the benefits of milk or eggs in their animal’s youth and eating their meat once they aged past useful production. Because of this less specialized style of farming, the breeds developed by our ancestors are often both full bodied and prolific at egg or milk production, making them ideal animals for a small farm or homestead.
In the poultry world heritage breeds are often some of the most colorful and fun to keep. A heritage breed chicken is defined by the Livestock Conservancy as a breed recognized by the American Poultry Association that is naturally mating, has a long and productive lifespan, and a natural, slow rate of growth. Similarly, heritage ducks, geese, and other animals should lead long lives without growing unnaturally fast or mating through artificial means.

Heritage breed animals are not just important because of their versatility on the farm.  They also help to diversify the farming industry. According to recent studies, within the United States more than 83% of dairy cows are Holsteins, similarly 75% of pigs are one of three main breeds, and the majority of chickens in factory farm come from only few select breeds.

There are many reasons that diversifying the breeds available to the American farmer is important, including increasing disease resistance and expanding the genetic pool. 

Heritage breeds also connect us with our past in a unique way. There is something special about connecting with your roots by keeping the same breeds of livestock on your farm as your ancestors did. It’s not just farming with ducks and pigs, it’s farming with the same curved beaked fliers (Dutch Hookbill) or single hoofed hogs (Mulefoot Hog) as generations before have raised.

Raising these breeds responsibility also does a great deal to preserve types of livestock that might otherwise go extinct. Beyond their many useful attributes, these breeds and their rich legacy deserve to continue diversifying the American farm.

Smaller homesteads may find that adding heritage breeds gives their farm a splash of color or a great conversation piece, which alone can bring attention to a small local farm.

Thanks to the ubiquity of the large scale, monoculture farm, there are a great number of breeds on the Livestock Conservancy’s list of endangered breeds.  On their list of chickens alone there are almost forty breeds considered Watch, Threatened, or Critical. These include some of the most spangled chicken breeds, including the Modern Game Fowl which resembles a long-legged, skinny man — the bearded and feather footed Faverolle, and even the remarkably hardy Russian Orloff chicken.  

If you have a small, family farm, heritage breeds are the way to go, even if their rich history is not a priority for you. Their versatility alone makes them perfect for the small farm, and harkens back to a time when all of our food was grown and raised by families that needed to diversify in order to ensure the health of their farm and success of their harvests.

It is not hard to raise heritage breeds.  More and more farms and hatcheries are breeding these rarer types, making them more accessible to a beginning farmer. In our small farm flock several of our chickens are heritage breeds (including one Faverolle), all of our ducks are on the Conservancy’s watch list, and most of our flock of thirteen geese are historical varieties, including a Roman Tufted goose which is currently considered in Critical status.
If you are considering breeding heritage breed animals, make sure not to cross breed which further dilutes the types. Try to mix strong genes, breeding good egg layers or animals with the perfect identifying marks of the breed with each other. With a little bit of attention it is easy to help bring these rare types back to their iconic place in the American barnyard.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200 year old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living’s site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.

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