Raising Rare Livestock Breeds

Learn about the challenges—and rewards—of raising rare livestock breeds.

by Sue Weaver
70 chicken breeds are known to be maintained in the U.S.

© Paulette Johnson
The 2004 ALBC census showed that there are 70 chicken breeds maintained in the United States; of these, half are endanged, like the recovering Plymouth Rock, and 20 are practically extinct.

Ten thousand years or so ago, humans partnered up with denizens of the animal kingdom to create the world’s first domesticated livestock.

Since then, thousands upon thousands of types and breeds of poultry and farm animals have evolved through natural and human selection, all tailor-made to suit the needs of the people who kept them and the climate and conditions in which they lived.

Now they’re disappearing from the earth at an alarming rate and it’s up to dedicated conservators to save them.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), at least 1,500 of the world’s estimated 6,000 livestock breeds are in imminent danger of extinction. The organization further asserts that the world is currently losing an average of two domestic animal breeds each week and that half of the breeds that existed in Europe in 1900 are already extinct.

Poultry breeds are likewise threatened. In 2004, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy conducted a census of chicken breeds.

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Of 70 breeds maintained by American poultry breeders, half are endangered and 20 are practically extinct.

Industrialized farming fans the flames of this alarming, worldwide trend.

Large corporations maintain factory farmed livestock in controlled environments (eliminating a need for breeds adapted to various regions or climates); they control their animals’ “health” through liberal doses of antibiotic cocktails (quashing the need for disease-resistant heritage strains); and they feed their unfortunate victims exacting rations of high-protein, growth-hormone enhanced feed so they reach market size in record time.

The UNFAO lists around 6,000 livestock breeds in danger of extinction
© Tanya Charter
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations estimates that there are 6,000 livestock breeds in imminent danger of extinction, like the CPL-threatened Navajo-Churro sheep.

The result: a bountiful supply of cheap, essentially tasteless, hormone- and antibiotic-laced milk or meat produced at the cost of the animals’ health and well being.

Fortunately, growing legions of farmers are stepping forth to reclaim our forbearers’ heritage livestock and poultry breeds. This rare-breed renaissance is occurring throughout the world and for numerous reasons.

Some conservators long for the mouthwatering fried chicken Grandma used to serve for Sunday dinner or melt-in-your-mouth, home-smoked hams like the ones Great-grandpa fashioned from his homegrown hogs. Some yearn to preserve living remnants of our distant past such as Spanish goats or Florida Cracker cattle, Colonial Spanish horses and Dominique chickens.

Others do it in the name of biodiversity—they feel that if disease or genetic malady should strike down, for example, the world’s Holstein cows (which represent 91 percent of America’s dairy herd), there must be hardy, heritage breeds ready to take up the slack. Some simply prefer livestock and poultry breeds created for specific environments and needs: Canadienne and Randall Lineback cattle for New England’s snowy winters; parasite-resistant and heat-tolerant Gulf Coast sheep and Pineywoods cattle for the deep South; Guinea Hogs for small-farm family tables; Buckeye and Holland chickens for free-range eggs.

The ALBC Speaks Out
However, as admirable and exciting as the concept may be, raising heritage livestock or poultry is not quite a stroll in the park.

The Key to Breed Stewardship is Education

Before you accept the responsibility of heritage breed conservation, learn as much about breed stewardship as you can.

  • Join the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC).

The ALBC is a nonprofit membership organization devoted to the promotion and protection of over 150 breeds of livestock and poultry. Now in its 30th year of service, it’s the only organization in the United States working to conserve rare breeds and genetic diversity in heritage livestock. As a member, you’ll receive the bimonthly ALBC News and an annual directory chock-full of ALBC-breeder contact information. These ALBC breeders make up an active network of people who participate in hands-on conservation, marketing and public education; they are definitely people you want to know.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
Pittsboro, NC 27312
(919) 542-5704

  • Visit historic estates and farms where heritage breeds are kept.

Meet the breeds that interest you and talk with the conservators in charge of their care. To locate such facilities, contact your state and county historical societies or visit one of the organizations on this list.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Williamsburg, VA
(757) 229-1000

Breeds: Milking Devon cattle; Leicester Longwool sheep; American Cream Draft and Canadian horses; Dominique, Hamburg, Dorking and Nankin Bantam chickens

Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation
Hartland, VT
(802) 436-1376

Breeds: Poitou ass; Choctaw Spanish Colonial horses; Dales pony; American Cream Draft horse; Randall Lineback cattle

Old Sturbridge Village
Sturbridge, MA
(508) 347-3362

Breeds: Gloucester Old Spots and Large Black pigs; Devon and Milking Shorthorn cattle; Dorking chickens; Narragansett turkeys; Cotswold and Wiltshire Horn sheep

Plimoth Plantation
Plymouth, MA
(508) 746-1622

Breeds: Milking Devon and Kerry cattle; San Clemente goats; Tamworth hogs; Wiltshire Horn sheep

SVF Foundation
Newport, RI (does not accept visitors)
(401) 848-7229

Breeds: Santa Cruz, Gulf Coast, Cotwold and Jacob sheep; Pineywoods, Milking Devon, Randall Lineback, Dutch Belted, Ancient White Park, Belted Galloway and Kerry cattle; San Clemente and Tennessee Myotonic goats; Narragansett turkeys; Dominique chickens

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Harrodsburg, KY
(800) 734-5611

Breeds: Milking Shorthorn cattle, Leicester Longwool sheep, Light Brahma chickens; Bourbon Red turkeys; Percheron horses

Rare Chickens

Rare Breed Rabbits

Additional conservators are needed (sometimes desperately so), but it’s important to understand what’s really involved in a meaningful conservation effort before you begin. We discussed the challenges of raising rare breeds with Don Schrider, communication director for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Based on our conversation, here are some things to consider:

Understand the Nature of America’s Rare Breeds
“Despite FAO figures,” Schrider says, “since 1985, no American breed has gone extinct. This is largely because the breeds on our Conservation Priority List (CPL) remain the breeds of choice for small, diversified farms; grass-fed operations; organic production and sustainable farming. They were developed to meet small-farm needs that in many cases still exist today.

“Consider CPL hog breeds like Guinea Hogs and Mulefoot pigs. These are heritage breeds ideally suited to the South where their dark skin pigmentation protects them from the sun’s harmful UV rays.”

In the old days, he tells us, pigs not only furnished pork for the dinner table, in the winter they were fenced on the family’s garden spot where they tilled the earth with their snouts—an important service when garden produce meant life. They were hardy pigs, easy keepers that foraged for meals in the woods. Shelter needs were negligible; they virtually raised themselves.

Now fast forward to 2007 and imagine these hogs in an organic pastured pork situation. It works!

Or picture the Buckeye hen, he says. She lays fewer eggs than production Leghorns, but the flighty, little production Leghorn in her cramped battery cage requires a controlled climate and a good amount of feed to crank out her sorry egg each day. When she’s spent, her value as meat is nil.

The Buckeye, on the other hand, is a free-range hen. She’s a friendly, mellow bird, but very active: In season, she chases down much of what she eats. This big, red hen lays tasty, brown eggs year-round; since she tips the scale at a meaty six-and-a-half pounds, she makes fine stewed chicken when her laying life is over. Which would be most productive on your farm?

However, all of these breeds are critically endangered—there are a finite number of animals to go around. Dabbling in rare breeds won’t do. Their survival hinges on knowledgeable and fully dedicated conservation efforts.

Don’t Be a Fly-By-Night Breeder “If you choose to raise heritage breeds, don’t jump in and jump back out,” cautions Schrider. “

This causes far more harm than good. New breeders, particularly those who have never worked with that species before, must thoroughly educate themselves and have a plan in place before purchasing endangered breeds. The more critically endangered the breed, the more important this is.

Imagine if someone buys the last of a line or an entire generation of a critically endangered population,” he says, “then changes his mind and sells them at a sale barn. The loss of potential genetic diversity could be staggering.”

Conservators must fully appreciate the responsibility they’re assuming when they commit to raising an endangered breed.

“Do what’s best for the breed, not just what’s best for you,” Schrider cautions. “Find out how the breed needs to be maintained before you buy animals. Make sure registration papers are in order. If you choose a Critical or Threatened breed, be willing to maintain both sexes. Populations are severely limited and frequently spaced far apart. Semen for artificial insemination may not be available, so you need to be willing to keep a boar, bull or stallion; if not, choose a breed with a larger population, perhaps one from the Recovering list.

“A great deal of genetic potential is sacrificed when rare breed females are bred to males outside of their breeds. The Cleveland Bay [horse] is a perfect example. This is a British breed that traces back to the 17th century. It’s critically endangered worldwide, yet registered mares are still being crossed with Thoroughbred stallions to produce sport horses. The cross could as easily be made the other way around: a Cleveland Bay stallion on Thoroughbred mares. The end result is the same, but those precious mares could be saved for conservation efforts within the breed.

“Critically rare breeds are not always readily available … a byproduct of being ‘rare.’ These animals are maintained in small herds, so breeder-quality stock isn’t always available for immediate purchase. Have patience. Network with other breeders and expect to follow some blind leads. And know what will happen to your animals when you stop breeding. Make sure your heirs know how precious they are and keep in touch with other responsible conservators who can take them in an emergency.”

Choose an Existing ALBC-listed Breed “Many breeds on our Conservation Priority List are critically endangered,” Schrider tells us. “All of these breeds have a long history of use in America and these are the breeds we promote. We believe that breeds developed elsewhere are best conserved elsewhere.

“We discourage the importation of new breeds because there is a limited niche for the qualities and products each has to offer. For example, if additional longwool sheep breeds were imported, fewer conservators might be interested in working with our CPL Cotswolds or Leicester Longwools. As new breeds are imported and gain a foothold, existing breeds suffer. The ones we already have need our support.”

Conservators Share Their Wisdom
To round out the picture, we spoke with a number of breeders already involved in heritage-breed conservation. When asked about the pitfalls of rare-breed conservation, these points were mentioned:

Gain experience first with a mainline breed. If you’ve never raised a species before, learn the ropes with a similar common breed. For instance, before committing to rare Oberhasli goats, hone your goat-keeping abilities with Nubian or Saanen dairy does (they’ll reward you with tasty milk while you learn).

Scarcity is a given. Be prepared to be placed on waiting lists. Expect to spend time and money in travel or on shipping to obtain the foundation or replacement animals you desire. The more critically endangered the breed, the more this tends to be.

Understand the principles of genetics. Individuals in some critically rare breed populations may be related. A certain amount of line- and in-breeding must sometimes be done to preserve a breed. This can be a blessing (when common ancestors are free of glaring genetic faults, line- and in-breeding can be used to successfully set type) or a curse (indiscriminate breeding to faulty individuals can result in birth deformities and lack of breeding vigor). In any case, it’s never OK to indiscriminately breed your rare-breed animals; you must understand the principles of maintaining a breeding population first. Established breeders and the ALBC are often willing to help plan matings if you’re willing to accept their assistance.

Hook up with support groups, but choose them wisely. It’s impossible to raise rare breeds in a vacuum. Investigate associations and registries before you choose a breed; some organizations are infinitely easier to work with than others. By nature, conservators are strong-minded individuals who are firmly dedicated to preserving their breed; when groups come together, viewpoints may differ and personalities may clash. The answer is not to form a new organization; multiple registries tend to weaken conservation efforts as a whole. Find a group you can work with or consider choosing a different breed.

Find a mentor (or two or three or four). The best way to learn about these unique breeds is to network with breeders in the know. Local, hands-on assistance is obviously best, but when unavailable, long-distance (phone or Internet) mentors can be a godsend.

Locate veterinarians for your animals before you buy them. When critically endangered breeds are placed in your hands, you have a moral obligation to keep them well. Talk to area vets before choosing a species. In areas where sheep are practically an exotic species, where will you find a vet who understands the parasite-resistance of Gulf Coast sheep?

The shortage of farm vets in the United States is felt deepest by hobby farmers. Try to find a vet who is knowlegable about the species you want to raise and who shows an open and supportive attitude about what you are doing.

If your vet already knows your chosen species, he or she may grow to appreciate the good qualities of the rare breed in comparison to the more popular breeds.

Expense can be prohibitive. While some rare breeds are surprisingly inexpensive to obtain and maintain, others are pricey indeed. When pricing breeds, don’t forget to factor in travel expenses to view potential purchases, shipping and even veterinary costs if artificial insemination or embryo transfer will be part of your breeding protocol. Obtain a breeders directory and price quotes from many breeders—some will sell for reasonable prices.

Choose a breed adapted to your locale. Most heritage breeds were established in or developed for specific climates and might not flourish in the one where you live. When Cynthia Creech brought endangered Randall Cattle (“New England’s Own Heritage Cattle,” January/February 2007) to her Tennessee farm, the cattle failed to thrive; when transplanted to her new home in Connecticut, they do. Highland cattle in Florida, Miniature Zebus in Minnesota, Leicester Longwool sheep in the arid Southwest—it’s doable, but probably not in these breeds’ best interest.

Productivity is sometimes an issue. Heritage and rare breed food-producing animals and poultry invariably take longer to finish to marketable size. They sometimes produce smaller litters, fewer eggs or less meat than breeds developed for maximum production. If super-productivity is your goal, heritage breeds might not deliver. Investigate the breeds that interest you before you decide.

Toot your own horn. The public may not be aware of your heritage breed’s fine-eating qualities, so it’s up to you as a producer to establish niche markets and promote products derived from your animals. Marketing non-food-producing, rare livestock, such as equines, can be problematic as well, since buyers tend to choose the breeds they know.

Consider forming rare breed co-ops to raise public awareness or exhibiting at livestock shows to build your reputation and to network with other knowledgable breeders. Education and promotion are the keys to showing a profit with rare breed animals and poultry.

There is no doubt about it, raising heritage livestock and poultry can be a rewarding and valuable experience. But consider the ramifications. As a conservator, you accept stewardship of your chosen breed. It’s an enormous responsibility. Think before you act.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore or tack and feed store or subscribe online>>

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