An Introduction to Heritage Breeds: Saving and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry

An Introduction to Heritage Breeds: Saving and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry


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Heritage breeds matter, and they are often a better choice than conventional breeds for small farms and backyards. This eloquent, inviting, visual guide explains why conserving heritage breeds is important and shows you how you can raise these breedsyourself, helping to preserve them and benefiting from them at the same time. Written by three experts from the Livestock Conservancy, this book includes chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys, and horses, detailing each breed's specific needs and characteristics so that you can select the one that's right for you. Whichever breed you choose, you'll find thorough, comprehensiveinformation on how to raise it successfully.

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Library Journal

The Livestock Conservancy, a heritage breed conservation organization, has created a go-to guide for anyone considering raising heritage breed livestock (chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, horses, donkeys, and rabbits). The manual walks readers through the process of selecting an animal by providing detailed information about which type is best based on climate, space and shelter availabilities, and zoning restrictions. For those looking to bring up highly threatened breeds, the Conservation Priority List categorizes the varieties into critical, threatened, watch, recovering, and study segments. Color illustrated "Breed Snapshots" provide an overview of the homeland, use, size, color, and conservation status of selected animals. Throughout the book, success-story anecdotes show the importance of farmers to the preservation method. Tips on processing, keeping records, and joining breeding associations are included. The work concludes with an appendix featuring species at a glance and a listing of key resources. VERDICT Essential background reading for those interested in raising and breeding heritage animals.—Lacy S. Wolfe, Ouachita Baptist Univ. Lib., Arkadelphia, AR

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612121253
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 632,675
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Some Background on Breeds

Heritage breeds are important resources for today's sustainable farmers and for future generations. Just what are heritage breeds and how do they differ from "modern" mainline production breeds? Knowing how these important animals function and how they have become endangered is a great starting point for learning how they can be saved as important pieces of the overall animal production system for the present and the future.

How Breeds Differ

Breed differences can be subtle, but every species also has examples of extreme variation. For example, cattle breeds include:

Cold-hardy Yakut that thrive above the Arctic Circle, providing milk, meat, and draft power

Well-fleshed and tender Angus for beef production in temperate climes

Aggressive Spanish De Lidia used in the bullring and for beef

Dwarf Muturu of humid tropical West Africa producing milk and beef, and resistant to disease

Long-legged Bororo that roam the savannas south of the Sahara producing meat and milk for their nomadic owners

Active and agile Tharparkar used for draft in India

Long-eared Gyr used for dairy production in the tropics

Black and white Holstein unexcelled at milk production in temperate climates

Each of these breeds has a distinct appearance, adaptation to its environment, and production capabilities suited to the culture of its owners, and each has a role to play in a secure future for global cattle production. Just as important, most would fail to thrive in a different environment due to the mismatch with either the environment, the production goals expected from the animals, or both.

Selecting for Desirable Traits Over the Generations

Each species of domesticated livestock has many breeds. Owners developed these breeds over generations by selecting and breeding animals to emphasize specific traits necessary for survival and production in the local environment. Examples of these traits include:

* Strong hooves and good mobility

* The ability to eat and digest fibrous, non-nutritious plants

* The ability to produce a large number of eggs from scrounged feeds

Animals within a breed are relatively uniform and have important differences from those of other breeds.

Breeds organize the total genetic variation of a species into distinct packages, each adapted to a specific purpose in a specific environment. The breeds of a livestock species can be imagined as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Each breed fits with the other pieces in the puzzle, working best in its specific spot relative to its neighboring breeds. The entire picture loses something if a piece is missing. Ensuring that we do not lose any more of these breed "pieces" helps to complete the puzzle now and in the future.

Exploring the Term "Breed"

Although the word breed has several meanings, some based on culture and others on genetics, the definition we will use here is: A group of animals, developed through isolation andselectionby humans, that share a common link of history, foundation, and type, and that reproduce this same type when mated with one another.

Each of the terms in this definition has a precise meaning.

History. The common experience of the animals over generations, including migration, changing use, and management shifts — the practices of function and selection breeders used in the past

Foundation. The specific individual animals that belonged to the original genetic "parents" of the group

Type. The characteristic appearance that distinguishes one breed from others

Isolation. Lack of mating with animals from outside the original group and its descendants

Reproduction. In this context, the ability to transmit breed type from generation to generation

Selection. Breeders' choice of particular animals to carry on desirable traits

Heritability. Consistency of inherited traits in offspring from generation to generation

The most important aspects of the history of each breed are its foundation, isolation, and selection. In all breeds each of these three factors has had a role in the final form of the animals being produced.

In some breeds, one or more aspects may be more important than the others in shaping the final product. For example, Leicester Longwool, Teeswater, and Wensleydale sheep all have a similar foundation, but genetic isolation and the different selection goals of their breeders have shaped them into distinct breeds over time. In contrast, the different foundations of Randall Lineback and Milking Devon cattle caused dissimilarities in these breeds that remain to this day, despite similar selection goals in a similar environment.

Important nonbiological factors are also involved with breed definition, such as:

Relationship with humans for special cultural uses. An example is the use of four-horned Navajo-Churro rams, raised in the desert, for important roles in Native American "healing way" ceremonies.

Geographic location with its own distinct environment. Deserts and humid subtropical environments are likely to be especially challenging for animals. San Clemente goats are adapted for dry hot climates and rocky terrain, and Florida Cracker sheep for hot, humid weather and sandy soils.

Breeds Can Adapt to a Time and a Place

Each heritage breed has its own unique combination of ancestors, environment, and selection history. Different original animals formed the base of each breed, different climates demonstrated which animals had the genetic makeup to thrive, and individual owners from variable cultural perspectives selected animals for specific purposes and characteristics.

For example, Randall cattle, developed in Vermont, originated from a group of cattle from Northern Europe that were imported early in the Colonial period, long before formal breeds had been developed in Europe or anywhere else. Once the cattle were in North America, hardy New Englanders selected breeding animals based almost equally on their milk production, utility as oxen, and ability to survive in that region of long, cold, snowy winters.

In contrast, at about the same time, farmers in the Pineywoods region of the Gulf Coast started with cattle from the Spanish colonies in the region. These cattle came to the Americas before identified breeds were formed in Spain. The local breeders in the region especially needed heat-tolerant oxen to help with logging the local forests. As secondary purposes, these cattle were used for milk and meat production.

The uses of the two breeds were similar, although the cattle themselves are distinct from one another. These differences hail back to the distinct foundation, environment, and selection that are behind each breed.

Breeds Must Not Be Too Genetically Uniform

While a certain level of genetic uniformity is important for predictability, complete genetic uniformity is not the final goal. One of the most important reasons for maintaining some diversity within a breed is that genetic variation allows breeders continually to adapt the breed to changing conditions, whether these are driven by environment or human desires.

A second reason for maintaining some degree of genetic diversity within a breed is that high levels of uniformity come only from inbreeding, the mating of closely related animals, which brings with it the real threat of diminished vitality. (See chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 for more on inbreeding.) Inbreeding results in a group of descendants that are highly uniform due to high levels of genetic similarity. While this sounds good at first, it turns out that some characteristics in animals (especially fertility, disease resistance, and longevity) usually suffer when the animal's genetics become too uniform. These all influence the vitality of the animals.

How Genetic Variation Influences Breeding

Not all breeds are created equal! While they all are the result of foundation, isolation, and selection, these play out in different ways for different types of breeds.

Landraces are local breeds that developed from old foundations (200 to 400 years ago in the New World) and achieved their characteristics and adaptations through long-term isolation and selection by their owners. Landraces, at least in their original form, differ from more standardized breeds by having less formal organization of breeders. Landraces achieved their uniformity by the same process as breeds, but in their case the isolation from other animals was usually due to geographic distance or separation imposed by their owners for cultural reasons. The result is a sort of isolation "by default" rather than the more formal isolation "by design" that is typical of more standardized breeds.

For landraces, isolation and natural selection are usually the most significant influences on the breed. Unfortunately, the isolation of these animals is no longer consistent, so breeders must now organize and define landraces to preserve them in these days of increased communication and easy transportation.

Standardized breeds are more likely what come to mind when people say "breed." These are groups of animals that share a foundation, isolation, and selection history and have an organized group of breeders who have standardized the look and the breeding practices for the breed. For standardized breeds, the isolation and the human-driven half of selection are the most significant parts. Standardized breeds are isolated "by design" so that an Angus cow in England, the United States, or Argentina is part of the same breed genetic pool because matings only occur within the breed.

Diversity within Breeds: Strains, Bloodlines, and Varieties

Subcategories of animals within breeds can be confusing. At what point are these populations part of the same breed and when do they become dissimilar enough to be their own breed? To add to the confusion, the same subcategories sometimes have different names in different breeds and species. But these subgroupings represent much of a breed's diversity, so understanding them and their role in maintaining the vigor of a breed is important.

The most commonly used terms and definitions for breed subgroups are:

Bloodline or Strain. A subfamily within a breed, defined as a group of animals within a breed that traces its ancestry back to a specific original group. Bloodlines are essentially extended families within a breed. In most cases they derive from a specific family-owned herd that has been relatively closed to outcrosses from other bloodlines in the same breed for some extended length of time. The isolation, as well as the selection by specific owners, usually means that animals from the same strain or bloodline have a specific look or style that sets them apart from the rest of the breed.

In a sense they are sub-breeds and have many of the defining aspects of breeds, such as unique foundation, isolation, and selection. They retain the characteristics of the overall breed package, but have the additional stamp of uniqueness that comes from their own group.

Strain has the same meaning as bloodline, and the two terms are used interchangeably.

Variety. With a more exact definition than either "bloodline" or "strain," this term indicates the presence of a specific trait or traits possessed by only some of the animals within a breed. Variety is most commonly used for poultry breeds to identify birds that differ from one another in comb type or color. For example, Silver Laced Wyandottes and Golden Laced Wyandottes are both varieties of the Wyandotte breed. Similarly, Rose Combed Rhode Island Red and Single Combed Rhode Island Red are varieties of the Rhode Island chicken.

The following three pages compare four distinct bloodlines within the Pineywoods cattle breed.

Not All Varieties Are Created Equal

Although the word "variety" has a clearer definition than any of the other subgroup terms, the underlying genetics are muddier. Varieties within poultry breeds are not equally related to one another, and in several breeds the varieties each have a different genetic foundation. Such an occurrence is more possible in poultry than it is in livestock, because the mental image of "breed" for many poultry breeders is a specific final shape, style, and use that is tied more to final appearance than it is to foundation birds. In some cases, individual breeders have used slightly different techniques to come up with a final product that is similar enough for poultry breeders to group the birds together as a single breed. In poultry, some varieties really do function as isolated breeds, rather than as closely related populations separated by one or two genes as seems implied by the word "variety."

On the other end of the spectrum, to complicate matters even more, in some poultry breeds the varieties differ from one another only in the single gene that leads to a color or comb difference. In those breeds the varieties are closely related to one another and do indeed function as variations all within a single genetic breed. Anyone interested in raising poultry breeds with multiple varieties needs to be sure to understand how all the varieties are related in their chosen breed. For poultry varieties, "one size fits all" is definitely not the reality of the situation!

In livestock the picture is clearer, and the formal definition of "variety" is usually not used with mammals. Here, varieties differ less in the underlying genetic package and more in one or two details of appearance, such as the presence or absence of horns, or dwarf versus full size, or different colors. Here are examples of the way breed registries approach such variations:

Splitting. In some breeds a difference of variety eventually splits the breed into two differently named breeds. Angus (black) and Red Angus cattle both descend from a single breed but are now separate after long isolation.

Coexisting. In other breeds, the breed registries allow different colors of the single breed to coexist side by side. Most Oberhasli goats, for example, come in a deep rich bay color (red with black trim), but the breed registry also accepts the solid black goats that are produced occasionally. Randall Lineback cattle are allowed to have a black background color or a red background color. Many heritage livestock breeds allow more variation in color and horn type than is typical of more modern breeds, and this reflects their unique selection history where fancy points had to take a back seat to more practical issue like survival and production.

What Distinguishes Heritage Breeds

Most heritage breeds differ from more mainstream production breeds in a few important ways, although the fine details can be confusing. Differences are most dramatic at the two extremes of the spectrum of breeds: landraces and industrial breeds.

Industrial breeds (such as egg-laying chickens, broilers, turkeys, and some dairy cattle) are highly and scientifically selected for maximum production potential in a relatively controlled and benign environment. The result has been exquisitely uniform and productive animals tailored for a specific management system. For industrial breeds only a few animals reproduce, and they reproduce a lot! Successful Holstein bulls, for example, might have tens of thousands of sons and daughters, made possible by the widespread use of artificial insemination. This practice balances the entire breed on a very narrow base of support from these few reproducing animals.

Landraces, in contrast, come to us from a history of local use. Their level of uniformity is relatively low, because each breeder made independent decisions about which animals to reproduce and which animals to cull. The environments for landraces were challenging, and this also imposed selection challenges on the animals — only the survivors could reproduce! Because of isolation from breeder to breeder, the organization of landraces is broader than that of industrial breeds, with each herd or bloodline being its own genetic group.

Landrace animals usually have to juggle adaptation with production, and further have to average their production over a few traits (such as milk, meat, and draft; eggs and meat; or meat and wool) instead of specializing in only one. The result is a balanced animal that is productive "over all" but less likely to be highly productive in any one specialized trait than an industrial animal would be.


Excerpted from "An Introduction to Heritage Breeds"
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Copyright © 2014 The Livestock Conservancy.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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