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Rare Breeds Pose Challenges, Offer Opportunities

By Adrienne Masler

Cotswold sheep produce long, open fleeces and has been used in crossbreeding programs. Photo by the Cotswold Sheep Society


Ever since the advent of animal agriculture 10,000 years ago, countless breeds of livestock have evolved and adapted in response to natural and human selection.  Livestock breeds adapted to harsh environments and to the interests of their human partners, evolving traits such as increased milk or muscle production, smaller size relative to wild ancestors, and distinctive coloration.  Differences in environment and culture contributed to the development of about 7,600 livestock breeds worldwide.  However, 20% of the world’s livestock breeds are known to be at risk of extinction.
Maximizing production is the primary concern of modern agriculture, and breeding programs reflect this priority.  A handful of breeds comprise the majority of the population: four breeds of swine make up 87% of the American pig population.  Holstein cattle are about 83% of the national dairy herd, while three breeds of beef cattle make up about 60% of the American population.

Small, hardy Dexter cattle supply quality milk and meat. Photo by the American Dexter Cattle Association


The dominance of a small handful of breeds has significant consequences not only for other breeds,but also for farmers whose needs aren’t easily met by production-oriented animals.  Perhaps most important, the emphasis on production raises concerns about the viability and longevity of the livestock gene pool.
The motley crew of livestock breeds developed and used in traditional agriculture are broadly called heritage breeds.  They were not selected and adapted to modern agricultural practices (e.g., CAFOs) but remain adapted to regional climates, diets, and practices (e.g., pasture).  Generally speaking, modern breeds have been heavily selected for production and the systems they plug into are high-input, high-output systems that require intense management.  On the other hand, heritage breeds are often selected for multiple traits, including production, longevity, hardiness, disease resistance, and mothering ability.

Gloucestershire Old Spots are effective foragers and sows produce large litters. Photo by the Gloucestershire Old Spots Pig Breeders Club


Heritage livestock can dovetail neatly with the needs and preferences of small-scale producers.  Hardy, independent animals could be a good choice for a hobby farmer or a producer who also maintains off-farm employment.  The reduced quantity of production relative to major breeds can be a blessing for a smallholder who would be overwhelmed by, say, a Holstein’s average 77 pounds of milk per day.  Heritage or mixed-breed animals are often better suited to pasture conditions than animals that have been bred to thrive in enclosed facilities.  Some heritage breeds, like American Guinea Hogs and Nigerian Dwarf goats, are smaller and may be easier for children and small adults to wrangle.

Resource Spotlight

Additional information about livestock conservation and specific breeds of heritage livestock can be found in the following sources:
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy – http://albc-usa.org/. Offers information about livestock conservation and genetic diversity. ALBC’s work includes research on breed populations and distribution, gene banks, education, and support of farmers and breed associations.
Food and Agriculture Organization – http://www.fao.org/sd/EPdirect/EPre0042.htm and http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a1250e/a1250e00.htm. In-depth information about global livestock genetic diversity.
Heritage Breeds Conservancy – http://www.nehbc.org/. Offers breeding programs, education, and farmer assistance.
SVF Foundation – http://www.svffoundation.org/. Conservation efforts involving embryo and semen cryogenic preservation.
Oklahoma State Department of Animal Science – http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/. Information on a wide variety of breeds of all types of livestock.
Heritage Breeds USA – http://heritagebreedsusa.com/. Online classifieds for heritage animals and networking for breeders.

However, heritage breeds aren’t just interesting and useful for contemporary small-scale or niche producers.  Anticipating changes in climate, societal preferences, market conditions, and agricultural practices, organizations like the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the SVF Foundation, and the Food and Agriculture Organization are encouraging the preservation of livestock genetic diversity.  Traits such as disease and parasite resistance or high fertility may be confined to rare breeds today but may become commercially viable or even vitally important in the future.  If such breeds become extinct now, we will lose the opportunity to adapt our current livestock to future conditions.
Those interested in raising heritage animals should be prepared to research a variety of breeds to find those best suited to their environment and operation and should plan to plug into a network of producers.  Saving or maintaining a rare breed is nothing if not the collective, coordinated effort of dedicated individuals.  It’s also a rewarding way to learn more about animals, agricultural history, and science while making new friends.  See the Resource Spotlight or contact your local Extension educator for additional information.
Adrienne Masler is a recent Cornell graduate and former intern for the Small Farms Program.  She can be contacted at amm428@cornell.edu.

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