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The Importance of Heritage Breeds on the Homestead

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Over centuries farmers developed livestock that had admirable qualities that were well suited to the conditions and priorities of the farmer. This breeds are all considered heritage breeds and at risk of extinction.

Endangered farm animals. It’s true. An average of one breed a month becomes extinct. A total of 190 breeds have become extinct over the past 15 years. And it’s devastating.

These animals are a part of our heritage. Developed over centuries, around on farms for decades or even centuries. Well adapted to the small farm conditions they were raised upon. And then, something changed.

The way we farm and raise livestock (and crops for that matter) has changed drastically in the past 100 years or so. Instead of developing breeds full of qualities to be not only productive, but well adapted, the world has embraced only a select few breeds that are better adapted to industrial farming practices.

In fact, a handful of breeds make up the majority of our food supply.

Why Livestock Diversity is So Important

Only 14 species provide over 90% of the human food supply.

A whopping 91% of all dairy cows are holsteins. And only 4 other breeds are utilized on industrial dairy farms.

Fifty years ago 15 different breeds of pig existed. Today only 7 of those breeds remain, the other 8 have become extinct.

Five breeds of chicken make up the majority of all egg production in the United States. Just five!!

Seventy percent of the beef cattle market is made up of only 3 breeds of cattle.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) 20% of farm animal species are currently endangered totaling 150 breeds.

Why To Consider Heritage Breeds On Your Homestead

What Are Heritage Breeds?

These livestock breeds were the ones raised and developed by our ancestors. A part of our heritage and were once an integral part of farm live before industrialized and mechanized agriculture took over the landscape.

Most were developed to maintain self sufficiency on the small farm. They were able to naturally reproduce, could forage for their food (as opposed to needing the commercial feeds of today), were great mothers, disease and pest resistant and fairly self sufficient animals.

These breeds are still very well suited to modern, small farms, but do not do well on commercial farms. Each species has its own criteria to meet which can be found here by scrolling to the bottom.

Benefits of Heritage Livestock for Your Homestead

These animals are not in short supply of benefiting you and your self sufficiency goals. They don’t need all of the modern amenities that a lot of commercialized breeds need.

Since these breeds were developed to suit localized environments in their time, they are incredibly self sufficient, disease resistant and productive in small farm settings. Just like our ancestors had.

  • Heritage breeds were bred to endure the harsh conditions of real life. They will not require a temperature-controlled barn or coop. This is essential for a lot of us since electric in outbuildings (especially coops) isn’t always possible (or cheap).
  • Heritage breeds are much more adaptable to small, sustainable farms than their commercialized counterparts. They don’t need a lot of space to be appropriately raised. However, they do tend to forage for their food, so keep space, available forage, and cleanliness in mind when you’re choosing heritage breed livestock.
  • Heritage breeds were bred to naturally resist disease making the use of antibiotics a lot less likely. Not to say that you’ll never need to use them, but you won’t need to use them as often.
  • As I mentioned these animals are much better adapted to pasture and naturally forage which can cut down on your feed bill significantly. Some do not require grain rations at all, though since it is common practice, you may have to make adjustments.
  • Raising heritage breeds helps maintain livestock diversity. This is essential to food security. So, not only are you making a difference by preserving a part of our past, you’re helping maintain food security and diversity that is essential.
  • These animals all must have the ability to naturally mate and reproduce. Many have high fertility rates and many were bred to have very few (if any) need for intervention during birth.
  • These breeds also have a much longer life-span and productive stage than most of the common commercial breeds of today. They do typically take longer to grow out, but they produce higher quality, more nutrient dense product as well.

How to Get Started With Heritage Breeds

Make a Plan

Farming requires planning. I don’t care who you are. You can’t just take on living creatures without some sort of plan. You should at least halfway know where you think you’re headed. Ask yourself….

What are my long term goals? Do I want to raise them for food? Do I want breeding stock? Do I want to sell their products?

Ask yourself a lot of questions about what your long term goals are before you decide which species and breeds would be best suited for your goals.

Consider Your Locale and Resources

Can you have livestock or are there regulations or covenants in place that prevent that from happening? Do you have neighbors close by that would be irritated? Do you have enough land to raise your preferred species? Do you have predators that would be a risk to your livestock?

You’d hate to finally get those chickens you always dreamed of only to lose them all to a coyote or a disgruntled neighbor.

Do you have the finances to not only purchase the livestock, but the upkeep of said livestock? Do you have lots of pasture or are you stuck in the woods? Do you have adequate time to raise these animals? Consider all avenues before taking on raising any animal! They’re living breathing creatures too. They deserve the best life we can provide them with!

Decisions, Decisions

Once you’ve detailed all the nitty-gritty you should have a better idea of what species will work for you. Perhaps you want to raise a bit of everything (all in good time) or maybe you only have room and time for a few hens. Maybe you want milk and beef, or maybe you just want pets.

It’s all up to you. Once you decide on a species, you can start investigating the different heritage breeds that are available. Check out the list here for all of the endangered breeds currently on the list. There are links available for each breed to find out more about them.

Found a breed or two that you’re interested in? Check out this list of breeders. If you cannot find what you want there, try googling your particular breed. I bet you’ll come up with a bit more information!

Not only are you helping conserve a breed, you will benefit from the biodiversity available to you from these breeds. They are truly a treasure that you will not be sorry you invested your time, research, love, and finances into. Without us, these breeds and all they have to offer will be lost forever!

I love adding heritage breeds to our homestead. They’re always a great addition, and I love keeping the breed alive! 

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Darren

Saturday 26th of January 2019

The Livestock Conservancy, located in North Carolina, is an organization dedicated to promoting these animals. Check them out. They have info on the breeds as well as info on breeders.

Jesse Beddingfield

Monday 20th of January 2020

Thanks for mentioning that! I’m a NC native and just getting into this. I’m glad to know I have some local resources. I hope to be living on my homestead this year.

Danielle McCoy

Wednesday 30th of January 2019

Thanks Darren. I actually have that website linked along with their breeder list within this post :).

Robyn Crowningshield

Thursday 31st of March 2016

We have always had Heritage breeds of animals. Grew up with Brown Swiss and Guernseys. Right now, we have Icelandic sheep............they originated over 1400 years ago. Our chickens are heritage, too. We can get the chickens easily but need to purchase them straight run..........kinda a waste but. It is hard to find reputable Icelandic sheep breeders in New England and they are pricey but worth every $$$. I look at it this way........after several years of breeding...........I will be able to get the higher $$$, too. Yes, I will need to become one of those reputable breeders but that is a goal of mine,

Danielle McCoy

Saturday 2nd of April 2016

That's awesome, Robyn! It's definitely worth the money, especially if you decide later on to become one of the reputable breeders of heritage breeds. Most of the heritage breed chickens we've found are straight run as well, it can be a waste for sure, but beggars can't be choosers. Thanks for sharing!

Rachel P

Monday 7th of March 2016

Awesome post! I grew up on a livestock farm and plan to start a little herd of my own someday, and this gives me a lot to think about! I knew that some breeds were slowly facing extinction, but wasn't aware that the list was so long. I'll be excited to do a little more research on individual breeds; as I know that certain ones are a little harder to raise. For example, there are a few on that list that young families probably shouldn't raise due to safety. The Angus breed is such a popular breed because of its great disposition and calving ease, so I know of a lot of families that raise them. Not to mention the fact that they are so easy to come by. But I am going to save your post and I look forward to doing some research and picking out a few on that list for my herd! Thank you for the information!!

Carol

Friday 4th of March 2016

I planed to have only heritage breeds on my 5 acres. Be aware, however: almost ALL heritage breeds are located on the East Coast/Southern states. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you will need to find a way to travel to where the breeds are and get them back to the PNW: a huge endeavor for larger breeds like cattle. I still am trying to figure that one out. It is what has stumped me for several years now. Chickens, ducks and other fowl are not the problem, it is the larger breeds like cattle, sheep, goats that are problematic. I want to SEE them before buying, but TWO trips isn’t feasible. PLUS having to rent something to travel with them back home.....AND they aren’t cheap!!! I figure that if we are trying to bring these heritage breeds back, they shouldn’t be so dang expensive!!! Like three or four times more expensive than regular livestock! I get : supply and demand, but we are trying to ‘resurrect' them, not kill them off with prices too high for nearly everyone to purchase! Sorry for the ‘rant’, I’m just frustrated with the logistics of trying to have only heritage breeds on my place. I’m almost tempted to get whatever instead of holding out for the best: heritage breeds.

Danielle McCoy

Saturday 5th of March 2016

Hi, Carol! I did notice that a lot of the heritage breeds are located in the eastern and southern portions of our country. I hope you can figure out a way to get some of these breeds your way so that you can be a part of the resurrection of these breeds (and sell me some when we get out that way). Kidding! Sort of ;). There are no heritage breeders that I found for any species in our home of Montana, which is where we are headed back to, so I'm sure we will be in the same predicament you're in now when we get to our land. Unless we find a way to get them while we're still here in Indiana and get them all the way to Montana with all of our things and children (which is highly unlikely). I agree, they are insanely expensive, and it's unfortunate. It's a long way to travel and a lot of money to spend, especially if you get there and what you see isn't what you want to fork over that kind of cash for. I can definitely understand your frustration and enjoyed your rant :P. To put it in a little better perspective, as far as cost is concerned, think about how much more you'll get out of these breeds. They are less likely to need expensive grain rations, less likely to become diseased, will not require specialized equipment (like a warm barn), and can mate naturally omitting the cost of expensive artificial insemination later on. While part of the reason they are so expensive is the lack of supply (and a growing demand from small farmers) part of it is the fact that these breeds will not require the amount of expensive upkeep that breeds who are used to all the big ag, industrialized farming conditions that their breeds have been subjected to for generations. Maybe now isn't the time for a heritage cow, maybe it should wait, maybe it is time and you just have yet to find the perfect one. It's sad that they're so far away, and so expensive but sometimes it's worth the hassle. Thank you for your rant, I actually enjoyed it. I hope you find the perfect livestock for your farm!

Carole @ Garden Up Green

Wednesday 2nd of March 2016

I raise Jacobs and I love them. At one time we also raised Dexter cows. I prefer the sheep, easier to handle and less fence repair. When you implement rotational grazing the benefits are even grander. Great information and I agree heritage breeds are the way to go.

Danielle McCoy

Wednesday 2nd of March 2016

Awesome! I can't wait to get on our land and start getting our livestock. Heritage breeds and heirloom seeds, nothing better!

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