Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Heritage Breed Livestock

A critically endangered Randall Ox.  One of
only approximately 200 worldwide
In several blogs that I read regularly, there has been an ongoing discussion about the importance of heirloom plants. On the one hand, there are those who believe that heirloom varieties of vegetables, for example, not only provide better taste and nutrition but, more importantly, are better adapted locally, promote biodiversity, and therefore help protect our food supply by maintaining genetic diversity in the world's food crops. Then, on the other hand, there are those who believe that many food and environmental activists are overly nostalgic and living in the past. They maintain that modern plant hybrid crosses produce more vigorous and disease resistant plants and that, in the end, these varieties are better suited to feed the world.  

I thought this might be a good time to extend this discussion to the world of animal husbandry through the following post on heritage breed livestock, portions of which I originally wrote for Monadnock Living magazine.

Building a Modern Day Ark

A newborn Cotswold lamb now listed as a rare
breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again.

-William Beebe, Naturalist

Farming in New England was never easy.  Except for the river valleys, the land was hilly, the soil was hard and full of rocks, and crops often failed.  Often separated from villages and markets by many miles, farm families had to be resourceful with both the crops they grew and the livestock they raised.  Crops had to produce seeds that were easily saved and adaptable to local conditions and livestock had to be multi-purposed and able to survive the harsh conditions that New England could dish out.  When a new breed of livestock was introduced, it had to fit both the people and the place.  Under these conditions, hundreds of native livestock flourished.  It was the very circumstances of self-sufficiency that created the greatest genetic diversity in both farm crops and livestock the country has ever known; a genetic diversity that has since been in steady decline. 

The population of Oberhasli dairy goats is now listed as recovering by the
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

The industrial revolution brought great numbers of people from the farms to the cities where large amounts of food were needed.  There was increased pressure to produce greater and greater amounts of food that could be raised cheaply and transported easily to markets that were often a great distance from the originating farm.  

Today, the country’s large livestock industry is focused almost exclusively on specialization and the economies of high production rates.  Most of us have become so far removed from agriculture that it’s hard to imagine the bond that once existed between a farmer and his animals.  Farm livestock are being bred and raised, not for their adaptability to a particular locale or culture, or for any working relationship with the farmer, but strictly for their ability to provide food cheaply and quickly.  In this country, four out of five dairy cows are the popular Holstein-Friesian breed.  Bred specifically for increased milk production, the cows can have udders so large that they practically waddle when they walk.  The Holstein breed so dominates dairy farming that it’s no wonder many Americans think that only black and white cows are able to give milk. Just one-hundred years ago, there were over 300 different breeds of cattle in this country and in Europe. 

The population of New Hampshire Red poultry was
recently added to the watch list of the
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
Within the poultry industry, chickens are bred for their rates of egg-laying, their ability to survive deplorable conditions, and their capacity to put on pounds rapidly; so much so that many of these birds don’t have the musculoskeletal structure in their legs to support their own body weight. The poultry and eggs sold to Americans come from a small handful of proprietary hybrid strains and the commercial breeding of turkeys is practically limited to one type that, through excessive hybridization, has lost its ability to reproduce naturally.  Just 50 years ago, many thousands of local hatcheries produced a large variety of poultry breeds that were sold to local markets.  

A rare Cotswold ram;  photo by Andrea Geesaman
The limited variety of livestock breeds extends beyond just cattle and poultry to include sheep, goats, pigs and horses. Because of the goal of specialization in livestock breeding, many of the multi-functional, utilitarian breeds of farm animals are at risk.  In Europe, half of the breeds of farm livestock that existed in 1900 have become extinct.  In North America, over one-third of all livestock and poultry are in decline or on the brink of extinction.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that, worldwide, 20 percent of animal breeds are at risk of extinction, with one breed lost each month.  Along with the loss of just a single breed of livestock goes what could be valuable genetic traits for coping with disease, climate change, and other emerging issues that could have a future impact on our food supply.

Luckily, people are now beginning to realize the importance of knowing where their food comes from.  On the heels of the growing interest in heirloom vegetables, the public has become aware of the plight of many of the now endangered breeds of livestock.  However, saving many of these breeds will take more than building a modern-day ark.  Right here in the Monadnock region of Southern New Hampshire, there are a number of small farms focused on reversing the decline of a variety of breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses, and poultry. The farmers who have undertaken this endeavor are well aware that for their success to be ensured, heritage breed animals must serve a function that extends beyond a mere public curiosity.  They must, once again, share a place in our agricultural economy. 

Lewis and Clark, two critically endangered Randall calves

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comments!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...