Sure my desire to raise heritage breed animals is romantic, fueled by by fantasies of romping around with shaggy sheep in the English moors and shaggier cows in the Scottish glens. But heritage breeds offer a wannabe farmer like me more than simply proof of my inclination for the good old days (Yes and yes I know I am ignoring the disease and war and poverty. But not the sheep!).
Unlike modern dog breeds, morphed into unrecognizable illness-prone and week-boned mutants, heritage breed livestock came into their uniqueness generally through utility (although I admit there are certainly some strange breeds out there where “utility” is questionable). The beauty of heritage breed animals is not in a single trait, but it is in their adaptability and versatility. Animals with genes honed to survive certain conditions and raised for certain meat or fiber qualities or for their temperament bring something special to the table (sometimes literally). And versatility and dare I say authenticity is something I don’t see too often in the local grocery store.
When we’re talking livestock, it’s the 1% and 99% reversed. We are the 99% ! Scream the butterball turkeys, dominating the market until they collapse from the weight of their own breasts, unable to reproduce without human intervention. Save the 1%! Cry the bourbon reds and midget whites! We can mate and even walk around and provide you with much tastier meat than that big sack of butterball! Of course 1 cry out of 99 is sometimes too quiet to be heard. If only those heritage turkeys had some money to do the talking for them!
I could babble about this for ages, but let me get back to the point. Heritage breeds = adaptability, versatility, deliciousness, conservation.
I haven’t yet talked about the conservation factor. “Heritage” at least for me brings to mind something old and important, but undefinable. However, when the word is attached to an animal it gains new meaning. It’s strange that although heritage breeds offer sturdier and generally tastier stock, a farmer acts as a conservationist when choosing to breed them. While animals will be eaten, bought and sold, the act of breeding heritage animals and raising them into adulthood gives the breeds a fighting chance to stay in this world and provide us humans with delicious meats, beautiful varied wool and any number of other delights.
Our rabbits are pure bred American Chinchillas. Their status is listed as “critical” in the Livestock Conservancy, a national organization that aims at “Ensuring the future of agriculture through the genetic conservation and promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry”.
The breed’s critical listing was a factor in my decision to get American Chinchillas, but it was also their description as excellent dual purpose meat/fur animals with docile dispositions that did it for me. Oh and their lovely coats and pretty eyes, of course. Instead of having to choose a breed that was just raised for meat or fur, I was able to find all of the qualities I desired in this single, excellent breed of rabbit. And I am very happy with this decision.
All this is not to say that non-heritage breed animals are bad–I would certainly turn none away, but these musings are solely meant to make you think about your animals and what is important to you. I realize that price is always a concern, and I should note that I purchased Gunga and Socorro for no more money than the typical craigslist bunny. However, I am well aware that when it comes to larger livestock, heritage can mean expensive and that’s another discussion for another day.
What are your thoughts on raising heritage livestock breeds? Do you raise any heritage breeds? Which did you choose and why?