Landrace and Heritage Horses and Cattle

Landrace and Heritage Horses and Cattle

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By Dana Benner  Without a doubt, our environmental landscape is changing. Nowhere is that more evident than on our farmland. Many places are experiencing drought, while others are suffering from significant floods. These sudden and often brutal changes strain our livestock industry and the land that supports us. It is time to step away from highly specialized livestock and carbon-burning machinery to manage them and re-look at heritage and landrace breeds. This piece will look at both cattle and horses.  

What are Heritage and Landrace Breeds?  

Except for bison, there were no cattle in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. The same is true with horses (as we know them today). For horses and cattle to survive here, they had to be hardy and adaptable, as the land here was unlike the pastures of Europe. Those animals that could adapt survived; those that couldn’t didn’t. Those survivors became the heritage and landrace breeds of livestock.  

Simply put, heritage breeds are those breeds of livestock that were raised and used by our ancestors. Heritage breeds tend to be tougher and healthier than their Standard breed cousins. Heritage breeds can sustain themselves on less than-ideal fodder and browse, can go longer without water, are very fertile, and don’t need to be shot full of antibiotics.  

American Cream is an American-developed heritage breed. Perfect for the small farm.

Landrace breeds, cattle and horses, are animals that have adapted, usually through natural selection, to survive and thrive in the areas where they live. Whether it is the Newfoundland ponies of the extremely cold Canadian Maritimes or the Cracker horses and cattle of the humid swamps in Florida, certain animals developed the traits to make them unique. Because of environmental isolation, these special animals had little to no contact with different breeds; thus, they passed down these unique traits to their offspring, developing separate breeds. Depending on the area, landrace breeds tend to be smaller than Standard breeds but don’t let their size fool you. They will eat natural browse and are not reliant on grain. Landrace breeds don’t need antibiotics to fight off disease and parasites.  

The Promise of Heritage and Landrace Breeds

So why should we be paying attention to these horses and cattle? Simply, they can survive in inadequate areas, like those brought on by drought, temperature change, and flooding. Another reason is that these animals have so many uses.  


In Loudon, New Hampshire, Sanborn Mills Farm plows their fields and pulls lumber from the forest using Devon oxen. The Devon, originally from the British Isles, is a heritage breed and a good beef producer. Miles Smith Farm, also in Loudon, New Hampshire, raise Scottish Highland cattle, and Rocky Meadow Farm, in Francistown, New Hampshire, raises Galloway cattle for their beef. Both the Scottish Highland and the Galloway cattle are heritage breeds that originated in Scotland.  

Scottish Highland cattle perfectly adapted to less-than-ideal conditions.

Besides the obvious reasons, there is another benefit to having heritage and landrace cattle; some can eat just about anything. All of these farms use their cattle to help clear land for new fields. After the area has been cleared of timber, let the cattle do the rest. The cattle clear the tender new growth, break up the soil, and simultaneously fertilize it.  

Devon oxen in a yoke in Kentucky  

Two of the most famous landrace cattle, the Texas Longhorn and the Florida Cracker, had their start the same way but took different paths in their development. Both breeds are descended from cattle initially brought to America by the Spanish in the 1500s. But that is the end of their connection. The Longhorn developed in the arid Southwest, its survival hinging on its ability to the dry conditions and the less-than-ideal browse. Natural culling made for a robust gene pool. The Florida Cracker had similar beginnings and had to adapt to the hot, humid, pest and disease-infested Florida landscape. There it fed on the course browse of the Florida scrubland. Like with the Longhorn, the Cracker was culled by nature. Only those who could adapt would survive and pass the traits down. In our world of poor environmental conditions and rising fuel and cattle feed costs, having a few of these on the farm could make a big difference.  

Galloway cattle at Rocky Meadow Farm in Francestown, NH


Using horses to work on the farm went out of fashion with the advent of the combustible engine and industrial farming, but now is a good time to re-think the benefits of having horses. Horses can be used to plow fields, haul lumber and firewood, bring produce in from the field and to market, and can be used for transportation (the Amish have had the right idea all along). With rising interest rates and the price of fuel bouncing around, it may not be cost-effective to have that big tractor, especially if you have a small to medium-sized property to work. There are many heritage and landrace horse breeds out there that are perfect for you.  

Team of Shires haying a field in Vermont. Photo courtesy of Cathy Wells

Besides the already mentioned Newfoundland pony, other good heritage breed horses to keep on a small farm include the Morgan and the American Cream. Both horses can do just about anything you need. The Morgan was developed in Vermont and was used for everything from plowing fields and pulling firewood out of the forest to pulling sleighs and sleds of maple sap to the sugar house. They are also popular for riding. The American Cream is an all-American horse and is considered a medium-sized draft horse and is more than capable of pulling stumps from the field, lumber from the forest, plowing fields, and pulling wagons.  

The Morgan was the backbone of many farms in northern New England.

For larger properties, consider two other heritage breeds: the Clydesdale and the Shire. Both are considered heavy draft breeds originating in the British Isles. If you have to plow and harvest large fields, these are the horses for you.  


Heritage and landrace horses and cattle may be the answer for those looking to deal with our changing conditions. There are many different breeds to choose from, so you need to do your homework to find out what works best for you. A good source is The Livestock Conservancy. By visiting their website, you will find a vast amount of information. I also recommend that you speak with farmers and ranchers who work with these horses and cattle regularly. Those people are the ones who can give you all the information, the pros and the cons, of owning these animals.  

Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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