26 Mar

An Introduction to Heritage Breeds


We’re really excited that as of this summer, we may be ready to move to our own farmette.  One of the first things we hope to do is to decide which farm animals to start with, and to that end I’m enjoying Dr. Sponenberg et al’s book, “An Introduction to Heritage Breeds“.   Why heritage breeds, you might wonder?  Here are a few reasons:

  • We’ve lost more heritage breeds over the past 100 years (due to commercial agricultural practices) than in the past 8 thousand years;
  • Heritage breeds have rich genetic diversity to thrive in every kind of ecosystem this earth has to offer, from Iceland to the Sahara, and loss of that genetic diversity would be a tragedy;
  • Modern commercial breeds are developed to grow to the most massive proportions possible in confined environments with feed provided.  This means less expensive meat per pound at the grocery store (a good thing), but also means that (for example) we’re eating specially bred white turkeys that have such massive breasts they cannot mount to mate so rely on artificial insemination technology and cannot forage for their own food and must have food provided (both bad things).  If we lost our heritage turkey breeds, we’d be left with no turkeys that could forage on their own or mate to reproduce on their own.
  • Heritage breeds thrive because they’ve been selected for thousands of years in various micro-climates for productivity and survival.
  • This productivity means low inputs are required, meaning they are small-scale sustainable since they’re resilient, economical and contribute to the future of sustainable agriculture.

In other words, hopefully all of us will consider heritage breeds whether for small-scale farming…or even possibly as pets.  Why not help save the rich genetic diversity of heritage breeds, and have a little more food security right at home?  As Dr. Sponenberg says, “Having more farmers make the connection with heritage breeds is the best assurance that all of these breeds will have a future.”

The Livestock Conservancy (long known as the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, or ALBC) was founded in 1977 in New England to help stop the decline and extinction of culturally and historically important heritage breeds.  They’ve created this rating system to determine the level of numerical and genetic threat to heritage breeds:

  • Critical:  Fewer than 200 known U.S. animals and fewer than 2,000 known global population.
  • Threatened: Fewer than  1,000 known U.S. animals and fewer than 5,000 known global population.
  • Watch: Fewer than 2,500 known  U.S. animals and fewer than 10,000 known global population.
  • Recovering: Breeds once in any of the above categories, but now known to be above Watch category thresholds.
  • Study: Breeds of genetic interest but for which a full definition of the breed is unavailable or for which historical or other documentation is inadequate.

This book covers heritage breeds for Cows (and all cattle), Chickens, Ducks, Donkeys, Geese, Goats, Horses, Pigs, Rabbits, Sheep, and Turkeys.  It’s full of great information, and you can get if from Amazon here: An Introduction to Heritage Breeds.

When we decide which heritage breeds we’re going to get for the farm, we’ll keep you updated!

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