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daisy the cow

Sarah Moore/MEDILL

Daisy, one of the 18 Guernsey cows at Golden Gurnsey in Carol Stream, produces sweet-tasting milk that is unique to her breed.

 


Heritage breeds: Saving chickens and cows from extinction

by Sarah Beth Moore and Janelle Schroeder
June 03, 2011


turkey poults

Sarah Moore/MEDILL

Young Bourbon Red turkey poults have just moved outdoors after a long, wet spring.

heritage pie chart

Janelle Schroeder/MEDILL

In the U.S., just a few main breeds dominate the livestock industry.  Due to lack of genetic diversity, these animals are highly susceptible to disease. Introducing heritage breeds alleviates stress on the industry and keeps historical varieties alive.

heritage bubble chart - correct

Janelle Schroeder/MEDILL

Data, courtesy of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, shows the number of poultry breeds on the conservancy list and their various statuses.


Sarah Moore & Janelle Schroeder

Farmers and breeders discuss the importance of heritage livestock and poultry, their beneficial qualities and why we should eat them.


Did you ever think that chickens, cows or geese could face extinction? Probably not, considering that in 2009, the poultry industry processed 8.7 billion chickens and 246 million turkeys, according to the American Meat Institute.

But the industrialization of chickens and other livestock has caused many traditional breeds to be pushed aside in favor of a few rapidly growing hybrids, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, N.C.

“Traditional breeds just don’t grow large enough fast enough,” said Christine Heinrichs, author of “How to Raise Chickens” and “How to Raise Poultry,” referring to the current poultry industry. The chickens that you see in the commercial farm industry are not the chickens that the Spanish explorers brought to the United States over 500 years ago.

Cattle and livestock share a similar story, playing a vital role in American agriculture since the 15th century. As of January 2011, there were 92.6 million head of cattle and calves in the United States according to Ronald Plain, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Yet there are approximately 10 traditional, also known as heritage, cattle breeds and around 30 poultry breeds facing extinction due to lack of breeding.

What are heritage breeds?

Heritage breeds are traditional breeds that have lost popularity and face the possibility of extinction.

Heritage chicken breeds must be from the parent and grandparent stock of one of the standard American Poultry Association Standard breeds. The American Poultry Association was founded in 1873 and has published the Standard of Perfection each year since 1874. About 100 recognized breeds with multiple varieties were on the list in June 2010.

The chickens must be raised on pasture, have a long outdoor lifespan and cannot be produced through artificial insemination. Heritage livestock must be registered purebred animals and all heritage breeds must have been bred in the United States since 1925, with few exceptions.

Why are they important?

“Big money can be made and is made in breeding good stock,” said writer C.F. Townsend in the August 1910 American Poultry Advocate.

But 100 years later, the incentive to breed prize-winning birds and other livestock is not what drives breeders, according to Heinrichs. Instead, she said, it’s the irreplaceable genes of the very animals that one day may rescue the commercial meat industry.

The lack of genetic diversity in industrial animals means that disease may run rampant, potentially killing off an entire species in a very short time period. This could be potentially devastating for the entire meat processing industry.

Industrial farmers seek uniformity in their flocks while traditional
breeders seek genetic diversity within breed consistency, according to Heinrichs.

“Those genetics are irreplaceable. Once they’re gone they’re gone,” said Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

A breeder can recreate a variety within a breed in a few generations with some scientific knowledge. That’s an additional significance of the foundation breeds. If those slip away, that whole genetic package is gone, according to Heinrichs.

Rescuing an entire industry is not the only reason that heritage breeds prove to be a vital asset.

“These are the birds that have accompanied us all through history,” said Heinrichs. “There’s nothing wrong with crossing breeds, that’s natural, that’s part of what humans do in domestication. But it’s also important to keep pure flocks, otherwise you end up with all mongrels."

In a 2010 essay, Heinrichs compared the loss of a traditional breed to the loss of a great library.

“I think it’s really doing a great disservice to our ancestors to allow the animals they cared for to go extinct,” said Elaine Shirley, manager of the rare breeds program at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. “They gave us a wide variety of livestock to choose from and I always try to get people to realize that pig might be the kind of pig your grandfather had.”

Supporting the animals assists breeders in their conservation efforts. Lori Itano, of west suburban Carol Stream, buys milks from Rick Boge, who raises heritage Guernsey cows. “I’m a big proponent of wanting to buy local and support local farmers, and I personally think that small farms are super important in the big overall scheme of America,” said Itano.

What is being done to help these breeds?

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, founded in 1977, publishes the conservation priority list every year. The list includes poultry, livestock and horses. For each breed that makes the list, the conservancy works with breed associations to gather breeding production data.

“The list serves kind of the real foundation for all of our conservation work,” said Beranger. “It’s not a simple list of what we think is rare. There is a lot of science involved.”

The data, which takes about a year to collect, provides the number of registered animals of any given breed of livestock.

Beranger said that registered animals are the ones that are most likely purebreds and that registration is not difficult. But like anything, there are some animals that are not registered simply because owners refuse to join a breed association.

“Some people just aren’t joiners,” Beranger said.

Poultry numbers require a census. To complete the census, the conservancy contacts hatcheries, major breeders and its members. According to Beranger, it may take up to one month to complete a census for just one breed of chicken.

“Poultry are spread out all over the place so we have to keep digging and digging to find the bottom line,” she said.

The poultry list is split into four numerical categories. The most serious category is critical, defined by the conservancy as “fewer than 500 breeding birds, with five or fewer primary breed flocks of 50 birds or more and a global population of less than 1,000.” There are currently 29 poultry breeds on the critical list for 2011 with one breed having been moved from critical to threatened.

The livestock and equine lists are also split into the same numerical categories, but the qualifying numbers are different from poultry. Critical livestock is defined by the conservancy as “fewer than 200 registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 2,000.” Rabbit breeds are the exception, with the critical list including breeds with fewer than 50 annual registrations and an estimated global population of fewer than 500. The 2011 critical list includes 33 breeds of cattle, asses, horses, goats, pigs, rabbits and sheep.

These seven livestock species are the only ones recognized as the traditional breeds in the United States. Poultry consists of the four traditional species: chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys.

Whether the species is poultry or livestock, the breed must be a true genetic breed and “an established and continuously breeding population in North American since 1925,” according to the conservancy parameters. For 2011, there are 188 breeds of livestock and poultry on the conservation priority list.

What can be done to save heritage breeds?

“The breeders of rare breeds are rare breeds themselves,” Heinrichs said. There are fewer and fewer breeders all the time, so making breeding an attraction has the potential to drive new breeders. She warns that breeders need to have the property and the facilities to actually keep a flock of a couple hundred birds. Breeders also have to put in the effort to keep the flock going.

Ed Hart, of Cattails Farms in Sorento in Central Illinois, has been around chickens his entire life and said that he has the “genetic disposition” to raise them himself.

“My fear is that in 50 years, there will be breeds that will be extinct,” he said. He has added some of the more rare birds to his own breeding program in an effort to add numbers to the country’s population.

Hart added that he is encouraged by the number of urban farm animals in big cities such as St. Louis and Chicago. An increased effort by urban farmers may save these dying breeds, according to Hart.

Beranger also said that her team has been flooded with inquiries from beginners looking to get involved.

“It’s a growing niche in the U.S. and we are busier than ever with people who are trying to get back in touch with the land,” Beranger said.

Shirley, who works with sheep, cattle, horses, pigs and poultry in Williamsburg, said that she just wants to get the word about these animals. “Not everybody can raise them, but everybody eats.”

Itano, who purchases milk to support her local farmer, said that supports heritage breeds because their potential sustainability.

“When you have heritage breeds, you can really customize that to your climate, to your customers, to your market in a way that you really can’t if everybody in the world raises Holsteins,” Itano said.

Each and every person who does raise these animals, whether it’s a few urban chickens or a herd of cattle, push the heritage breeds one step closer to once again thriving in a industrialized world.

“It’s pleasant to see that they are starting to get it,” Beranger summed up. “Not all chickens are white or red and not all cows are spotted."