Raising Heritage Breeds
Are Heritage Livestock Breeds a Good Fit for My Farm?
By Cathy R. Payne – Heritage livestock breeds are facing extinction worldwide, and some in the United States are in critical danger. Heritage livestock breeders play a critical role in conservation, but raising them is not the best choice for everyone.
Heritage livestock breeds are those our forefathers raised before the implementation of factory farming and the development of corporate strains. Generally, these breeds were developed or imported and raised in the United States before the 20th century, by the mid-1900s. The Livestock Conservancy is a national organization with the mission “To protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.” They monitor over 180 different heritage breeds. This year, May 15-21 is International Heritage Breeds Week, a time to raise global awareness about these valuable breeds.
The Role of Heritage Breeds in Biodiversity
Modern industrial breeds are genetically uniform and produce highly predictable outcomes. Artificial insemination, required for industrial turkey production, can have a single tom turkey producing genetics for hundreds or thousands of hens. Standardized heritage breeds, in comparison, have more variability of genotype. The amount of variability depends on the breed standard requirements and the selection criteria of their owners.
This lack of biodiversity places our food security in peril. If disease wipes out huge populations of a commercial strain of pigs, for example, the result will reduce our supplies of pork, and prices will rise. However, if a particular heritage breed is resistant to that threat, pork can be saved for future generations.
Advantages of Heritage Breeds
Heritage breeds have unique advantages. Many of the breeds are multi-purpose. For example, cows can be raised for both meat and milk. In addition, if you want to contribute to the breed’s future and select the very best offspring to move forward, you can sell breeding stock.
You will find that heritage breeds are typically smaller than modern “improved” breeds and commercial strains. This makes them easier to handle and easier to process at home. They also tend to be docile and easy to train. They forage for some of their food and do well in a pasture setting. The exercise and diet coupled with slow growth make them both nutritious and delicious.
Heritage breeds have other reduced inputs. In mild climates, an outdoor moveable shelter is adequate for most species, so barns are not required. Their hardiness means fewer vet bills. They live long lives and reproduce for more years. They can bring in more income during their lifetime than larger, faster-growing breeds with shorter lives. Heritage breeds are national treasures and important genetic packages worth conserving for our descendants.
Summary of Advantages:
- Often smaller and easier to manage
- Hardy and easy to raise on pasture
- Able to forage for food
- Fewer inputs (feed, vet care, housing, etc.)
- Longer lived — will produce a higher yield over the animal’s or herd/flock’s lifetime
- Adapted to particular climate (heat tolerant, parasite resistant, easy birthing)
- Rare, niche market for breeding stock
- Preserves biodiversity and history
- Incomparable flavor profiles
Challenges and Critiques of Heritage Breeds
It’s best to go into new endeavors knowing any special challenges that they bring. While many homesteaders find smaller livestock easier to tend and manage, in many cases the yield will be smaller and take longer to achieve.
Once you’ve set your sights on a particular breed, you may find that you can find some nearby. However, in many cases, you will need to travel far and pay premium prices to get quality breeding stock. Breed associations usually provide listings for their members. To save critical breeds, there must be accurate record keeping of their bloodlines. The associations make rules about standards and provide a registration service for members. Breeders need to use the required identification so that an animal matches its registration papers. This could include ear notching, tattoos, DNA analysis, or other methods. Sometimes the procedures or bylaws regarding requirements will change. That can disgruntle some members.
Summary of Challenges and Critiques:
- Yield of meat, wool, or milk per animal may be less than other breeds.
- Heritage breeds are often slow-growing and take longer to get to “market weight.”
- Difficulty finding breeding stock.
- Animals must be identified; keeping meticulous records is vital for registration.
- Fees for registration and association membership are required.
- Working with individuals in breed associations can be challenging.
- You need to have a good website presence and marketing skills.
Will Heritage Breeds Meet Your Needs?
Each farm and each farmer is unique. Think about your goals for livestock before deciding on heritage breeds. Let’s look at two hypothetical scenarios.
Farmer A wants to be a pork farmer. She has enough land to raise a small herd, has experience with hogs, and equipment to move them. Her goal is to sell cuts by the pound at one or two local farmers markets. She is familiar with two pig breeds that produce a nice hybrid cross for processing. She doesn’t like tagging ears or joining associations. She isn’t interested in technology. She believes that if she gets it to market, the pork will sell itself.
Farmer B wants to raise Pineywoods cattle because he has fenced land with pasture and woods suitable for them. He knows that they are an important American heritage breed. He also remembers seeing them at a heritage farm and finds them intriguing. He lives in an area that was once dominated by the Pineywoods forests where this landrace breed developed. He understands the need to DNA test each animal, and he has the financial resources to invest in his initial stock. He wants to sell his culls directly to customers and sell the best stock as breeding livestock.
Farmer A is a candidate for readily available breeds or for heritage pork cross-breeding. Farmer B is a candidate for heritage breed conservation. Although these are clear-cut examples of hypothetical cases, you can think about your own resources, goals, skills, and preferences. Those who choose to raise heritage breeds and do not have a strong passion for them are likely not going to be in it for the long haul. People who raise these breeds successfully will do whatever it takes to save them for future generations. Conservation is a calling.
For more information on heritage breeds and their priority for conservation, go to https://livestockconservancy.org/.
D. Phillip Sponenberg, Jeannette Beranger, Alison Martin 2017. Managing Breeds for a Secure Future, Second Edition, 5M Publishing Ltd. This practical book offers a comprehensive examination of breeding practices aimed at livestock and dog breeders with all abilities and experience levels.
Check out Cathy’s book, Saving the Guinea Hogs in the Countryside bookstore.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.