Heritage Breed Livestock: Multipurpose Menagerie

Heritage breeds serve in more than one capacity on the farm.

Indian Runner Ducks

Indian Runner Ducks originated in Indochina.

courtesy American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

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Move over Barnum and Bailey, there’s a new collection of unusual animals in town – and this collection of rare, domesticated livestock breeds can reside in your own backyard. Many heritage breeds are in danger of extinction, and in order to keep them around for the next generation, they need their jobs back. Integrating multipurpose animals into your farm can yield productive results, both for the farm and for the animals. The following breeds historically served many roles on the family farm. Do you have room for part of this multipurpose menagerie?

Gulf Coast Sheep

Status: Critical

For centuries, Gulf Coast Sheep were the only sheep found in the Deep South, providing meat and wool for home production. They are descendants of Spanish flocks brought to the New World in the 1500s. These sheep were shaped by natural selection, becoming well-adapted to the heat and humidity of their environment. The sheep lack wool on their faces, legs and bellies, which is yet another adaptation for tolerance to heat and humidity. Gulf Coast Sheep vary in size, with rams weighing 125 to 200 pounds and ewes 90 to 160 pounds.

Because of their natural adaptations, Gulf Coast Sheep have many desirable qualities for the sustainable farm such as heat/humidity tolerance, parasite and foot rot resistance, year-round breeding abilities, and good mothering abilities. These adaptations make the breed an easy-keeper while returning many benefits to the farm.

Gulf Coast Sheep can provide high-quality, mild-flavored meat, and the fleece can be used to create fabrics, blankets and sweaters. The fleece averages 4 to 6 pounds per ewe. Some producers also harvest milk to create butter and cheese for the family. The Gulf Coast, an excellent forager, can also serve a landscaping role, eating noxious plants that tend to overtake pastures and yards. As breed numbers continue to decline, Gulf Coast Sheep are a critical conservation priority. 

Chinese Goose

Status: Watch

Chinese Geese are considered by many to be the most graceful and beautiful member of the goose family, but looks aside, they’re also an ideal breed for the homestead. Often referred to as “Swan Geese” because of their long and graceful necks, Chinese Geese are descended from the wild swan geese native to Asia. Chinese Geese come in two color varieties, brown and white, and they range from 10 to 12 pounds.

Chinese Geese are exceptionally practical. Of all breeds, they are the best layers, most active foragers, produce the least greasy meat and are easy to sex at maturity. The average Chinese Goose produces nearly twice as many goslings as other geese, laying 40 to 100 white eggs annually. Due to their smaller carcass and meat qualities, they make a great meat bird for a small family.

The Chinese Goose can also serve as a built-in alarm system for the farm. Because they are alert and vocal, they will raise a ruckus if a threat is perceived. Tired of pulling weeds? This breed is by far the most popular for such chores due to its active foraging habits, moderate size and unmatched agility. While the breed’s numbers are stable, the Chinese Goose needs active stewards to keep it thriving. 

Guinea Hog

Status: Critical

Great for use in diversified, sustainable agriculture, the Guinea Hog is a small, predominantly black breed of swine unique to the United States. It has earned the nicknames Guinea Forest Hog, Acorn Eater, Pineywoods Guinea and Yard Pig due to its traditional role foraging in the Piney areas of the Southeast. The breed is relatively small, generally weighing from 100 to 300 pounds.

Looking for natural pest control and free composting services? Historically, Guinea Hogs were expected to forage for their own food, eat rodents and other small animals, grass, roots and nuts, and clean out garden beds. The hogs were also kept in the yard where they would eat snakes and create a safe zone around the house. Guineas are efficient grazers and gain well on rough forage. They produce small hams, bacon and lard essential for subsistence farming. An emerging demand for Guinea Hog meat also exists in the high-end restaurant market. While the Guinea Hog’s reputation is spreading, it’s still a critical conservation priority with fewer than 200 breeding animals in the United States. 

Runner or Indian Runner Duck

Status: Watch

The Runner, also known as the “Indian Runner,” has a long history as a multipurpose breed. Ancient temple carvings suggest Runner-type ducks existed in Indochina 2,000 years ago. In that part of the world, duck flocks were trained to stay within sight of a herder’s long bamboo pole and were driven out to rice paddies and fields during the day to glean scattered grain, weed seeds, snails, insects, larvae, small reptiles and the like. The ducks were also valued for their eggs.

The Runner is a lightweight duck weighing between 4 and 41⁄2 pounds. Its slim body and long neck have earned it descriptions like “bowling pin” and “wine bottle with a head and legs.” The Runner Duck is a prolific layer, producing more than 200 white eggs a year. On the farmstead, the Runner is great for pest control. Because the Runner is small, it is not valued primarily as a meat bird, but many say the meat has a similar flavor to wild duck. The small carcass may be fitting for family needs. Duck feathers can be collected and used for crafts, fishing lures, pillows and more. The interest in Runner Ducks is growing, and their numbers are improving as more breeders learn about their multiple uses. 

Red Poll Cattle

Status: Threatened

Looking for a cattle breed for the diversified farm? Look no further – Red Poll Cattle have many admirable traits beneficial to the small homesteader. Red Poll Cattle were developed in England in the early 1800s as a dual-purpose breed. Breeders selected their cattle for beef and dairy qualities, creating a population that was consistent in appearance, dark red in color and always polled. The first Red Poll Cattle were imported into the United States in the 1880s. Red Poll Cattle are medium-sized, with cows averaging 1,200 pounds and bulls 1,800 pounds.

Red Polls make great beef animals. They are efficient grazers and are renowned for their tender, well-marbled beef. The Red Poll also can be used for small-scale milk production, and some lines still produce an average of 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of milk per year. The milk is high in protein and butterfat, making it great for home cheese making.

Red Polls have quiet dispositions, and they are an excellent choice for rotational grazing and other systems where ease of handling is required. The breed is very fertile, and cows make excellent mothers. Today, the Red Poll population is threatened and needs new stewards committed to keeping the breed alive. 

Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.