Heritage livestock is becoming a more popular term around farms and homesteads. Claims of disease resistance, unsurpassed hardiness, and the nostalgia that comes with preserving traditional breeds, has rightly caught the attention of many. With the wealth of information that is now so easily available, many people are looking beyond the more common and readily available breeds of livestock for something to truly make their farm standout.
Although no officially recognized definition exists for the term “heritage livestock”, the Livestock Conservancy (LC) states that the term is more art than science. Loosely defined, heritage breeds are the animals that were the cornerstone of agriculture in America. These breeds were the ones that kept our ancestors fed, and their farms thriving. They lasted through the Great Depression, and were vital to food supply through the trying times of wars.
Heritage livestock breeds were created with specific purposes in mind. They had to be hardy, and withstand the test of time to continue to be used and developed. A large majority of these breeds were pivotal in developing many of the common, and commercial breeds that are used in most modern agricultural situations.
In order for a breed to be dubbed heritage, there are several qualities that it must exhibit. All heritage livestock breeds must retain their vital, self-sufficient qualities for which they were originally developed. These breeds must exhibit the ability to reproduce naturally, and true to the breed, be resistant to disease and parasites, and have natural foraging abilities. Generally, all of these qualities combine to make breeds that have not only stood the test of time, but are still perfect for the goals of today’s modern homesteaders.
Currently, the Livestock Conservancy recognizes heritage livestock breeds in poultry and livestock. For poultry, the LC recognizes breeds of chickens, ducks, geese and turkey. With livestock, the LC recognizes heritage breeds of cattle, sheep, horses, goats, donkey, swine and rabbits. Altogether, there are over 150 breeds listed and monitored by the LC.
The LC breaks the recognized heritage breeds into five different threat levels. These categories are critical, threatened, watch, recovering and study. These threat levels are determined by annual reports collected from the various breed registries. For livestock breeds, excluding rabbits, “critical” status is determined by fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States, “threatened” with fewer than 1,000, and “watch” is fewer than 2,500. The recovering category is for animals that have been listed in another category, and made improvement. The “study” category is a bit more complex as it is reserved for animals that lack historical documentation, or may not have enough varied genetic interest.
At this time, the LC only uses numbers from registered livestock to make their listing determination for a breed. The reasoning behind this, is that many breed registries have strict protocols to ensure that only purebred animals, and those that conform to breed standards, are accepted. This helps to ensure that genetics stay pure, and are not cross with any outside influences.
In the matter of poultry, where breed registries are not common, the LC relies on the cooperation of numerous sources. For counting purposes, only breeding stock is counted. Annually, the LC reaches out to hatcheries, breed clubs and organizations like the American Poultry Association, and the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities.
Through the dedicated work of breeders, hatcheries and groups like the Livestock Conservancy, the 2015-2016 report showed that many breeds of livestock had improved greatly. Two breeds of poultry, Orpingtons and Wyandottes, are no longer considered endangered. Also, one breed of turkey and 15 breeds of chickens found themselves “more secure” with more stable numbers than the year prior.
It is not uncommon for people to embrace heritage livestock, while shunning modern breed development. As our population grows, and more people turn away from growing their own food, we need to be able to adapt to this new demand. In some cases, that means cross breeding different breeds for an animal that has certain attributes, be it faster growth, disease resistance, or other benefits. That does not mean that this new cross is bad, or that the original breeds used to create the cross are no longer useful.
It is vital to remember that these foundation breeds were also created by selective, and prudent breeding from farmers to fit society’s needs, be it for growth, flavor, laying, or adaptability. At the time of their development, heritage breeds were used to fit the demands of a largely agricultural society, something that we are no longer.
The point is not that one breed is bad while another is good. The main thing that needs to be remembered is that with each cross there is going to be give and take. While you may inherit some good traits, you may get undesirable traits as well. The heritage animals are the result of many years of selective breeding for use in often harsh conditions. Preservation of these tried and true heritage animals will ensure that society always has these valuable genetics, in both pure form, and to use to create hardy and efficient new breeds of livestock.
Despite the need to be constantly adapting breeding programs, is it imperative to not lose sight of the heritage breeds. The qualities of these animals have been proven for generations. While they may not fit all of the needs of society today, they still have much to offer.
Many farmers, homesteaders, and hatcheries have sought to preserve the heritage livestock breeds. These visionaries work to keep these breeds alive, partially for nostalgia, but also because they know that it is imperative to our agricultural freedoms keep these genetics preserved. As our society strives for better, faster, and stronger, these animals remind us of our roots, heritage livestock keep us cognizant of the quality and durability that all animal breeds, both old and new should possess.
Are you interested in doing your part to preserve heritage livestock breeds? Take the first step and get started with poultry preservation!