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Want Versatility and Diversity on the Homestead? Consider Heritage Breeds

05/24/2018 9:17 AM | Willa Beth Smith
2018 International Heritage Breeds Week The Livestock Conservancy

Heritage Breeds include some of the first livestock brought to North America with settlers.  Barred Plymouth Rock chickens were one of the first breeds raised and bred on American soil. The ancestors of today's Colonial Spanish horse breed came with Spanish colonists and their descendants can still be found in wild herds in the West. With each new generation, these breeds became stronger and more adapted to our climate and our environment. 

Why Raise Heritage Breeds

Most of today’s livestock production farming hinge on monocultures or specialized breeds.  Without the diversity of heritage breeds, stronger traits like disease resistance, weather tolerance, mothering instincts and fertility can be lost.  If a disease hits a large monoculture farm, it can decimate our food supply.  It is incredibly important to maintain heritage breeds to avoid their extinction.

In an article on heritage breeds, Mother Earth News states that, “According to recent studies, within the USA more than 83% of dairy cows are Holsteins, similarly 75% of pigs are one of three main breeds and the majority of chickens in factory farms come from only a few select breeds.” 

Since most commercial farmers only use a few select breeds, The Livestock Conservancy has long list of heritage breeds on their Conservation Priority List.  Many members of the National Ladies Homestead Gathering recognize the need for conservation - be it animal or plant! - and they have chosen to help save heritage breeds and raise them on their farms or homesteads. 

Amber Barnes and Lorinda Barnes – North Woods Homestead in Priest River, Idaho - LHG of West Bonner County, ID Members

Amber and Lorinda wanted to breed chickens on their family farm - North Woods Homestead - to be more self-sustaining.  They quickly established themselves as Idaho’s premier breeders of Salmon Faverolles.  They researched dual purpose breeds best suited for their far northern climate.  Salmon Faverolles stood out and were Amber’s first choice.  They liked their docile nature, hardiness and ability to lay through the harsh winters.  And, let’s admit it, they're pretty cute with their fluffy faces!  But when they learned The Livestock Conservancy included Faverolles on their Conservation Priority List as a Threatened breed, they decided Salmon Faverolles would fit well into their homestead goals.

Cathy Payne – Broad River Pastures in Athens, GA - LHG of Athens-Clarke County, GA Member

Cathy became an expert on Guinea Hogs without even intending it.  When she started raising them, she asked questions and sought help from The Livestock Conservancy.  They referred her to others with experience.  Over time, Cathy began compiling everything she learned about Guinea Hogs and started writing about the breed.  Pretty soon, she was the expert, and everyone called her when they had a question!  Even though Cathy is retiring from homesteading, she is still writing books on Guinea Hogs and teaching others about the benefits of raising them. 

Aimee Dickerson – Thornberry Ridge in Draper, Virginia - LHG of Wythe County, VA Member

Aimee and her family run Thornberry Ridge and specialize in processing beef and hogs.  Their Dexter Cattle are raised entirely on pasture. Dexter cattle are one of the smallest breeds in the world. They are known for their excellent maternal qualities and are weather hardy and forage-efficient.  They are high producers of milk, making them an excellent dual breed for any homestead. 

We also have LHG members who raise heritage ducks and sheep as well.  There are too many to name them all!  We are thankful for our resourceful and conservation-minded members.

An Urgent Need

To maintain genetic diversity in our farm animals, we need more people to raise heritage breeds.  Some of these breeds are in danger of genetic extinction without swift action by farmers and homesteaders like us.  It is just as easy to raise a heritage breed as it is to raise any other breed.  The Livestock Conservancy can connect you to breeders in your area as well as get you established as a breeder.

Right now, The Livestock Conservancy is searching for people interested in raising Heritage Turkeys.  If you are interested in joining The Livestock Conservancy, visit their website and browse the information on rare breeds. Director Alison Martin is always willing to talk with future breeders and connect them with the right resources and people.

A documentary is in the works, too, by Backyard Green Films documenting Master Breeders.  There are also other initiatives like “Shave’em to Save’em” which is all about raising heritage wool. 

Do you raise a heritage breed? If so, please share your story and experience to help others learn more about it!

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