Know Why You Want a Rare Breed on Your Homeplace

The Livestock Conservancy, formerly the ALBC, is a great resource for those interested in conserving a rare breed of livestock.

Highland Cattle

Highland cattle thrive in the cold.

Photo By Heather Bashow

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Gung ho over Guinea Hogs? Fascinated by Friesians? Hooked on Highlands? If the answer is yes, you are by no means uncommon when it comes to having an affinity for rare livestock.

Rare breeds are unique, interesting, hardy and challenging. They can be rewarding to raise, but it’s important to choose the right species, as well as the right breed, for your needs and setup.

First of all, what exactly is a rare breed? If it were just a simple matter of numbers, more than a few of the off-the-wall breeds might qualify, but the true meaning of “rare breed” goes much deeper than that.

The Livestock Conservancy (formerly The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy or ALBC), founded in 1977, was the first American organization to take a good hard look at some of the historical livestock breeds that had begun disappearing, such as the Milking Devon

. Originally founded by a group of agricultural historians, The Livestock Conservancy’s membership and mission now includes farmers, scientists, philanthropists and hobbyists who share the same passion for conserving rare breeds of livestock.

In order for a breed to be listed on The LC’s Conservation Priority List, a host of criteria need to be met. First of all, the breed has to be sufficiently few in number. There are five categories, from Critical to Study, and each has numerical criteria for inclusion. While no breed wants to land in the Critical category, it can often serve as a wake-up call for people to take seriously the need to conserve that particular breed.

Secondly, the breed must have a continuous breeding history in the United States dating back to 1925. Imported breeds are not excluded, but the foundation stock must no longer be available.

Thirdly, the breed must be a true breed: When members of the breed are mated together, they produce offspring true to the breed type, and that type is easily identifiable. The easiest example of what a breed isn’t is the Black Whiteface cow. The Hereford and Angus breeds are used in this cross, and the first generation of offspring are uniform, all black with white faces. But if you breed those first-generation Black Whiteface cattle together, you get a whole variety of colors and markings. Therefore the Black Whiteface isn’t a true breed, but a crossbred type.

These three criteria help give The LC a solid foundation for including or excluding breeds, and helps them track the numbers of each breed.

Conservation calling

Conservation breeding is a noble calling, but it isn’t for everyone. What do you need to know before you start?

Jeannette Beranger, The LC’s research and technical programs manager, often talks with potential breeders when they call The LC office. Beranger has a list of questions for prospective new rare-breed aficionados to help them narrow their focus and find the best breed or species for their needs. Oftentimes she’s able to point people away from what they thought they wanted and into something they might not have considered but will come to love deeply. For example, if you live in Georgia, she won’t recommend Highland cattle. Not that they aren’t useful and a wonderful breed, they simply won’t do as well in the hot, humid environment, no matter how cute and fuzzy they are. Instead, she will probably steer you toward Pineywoods or Florida Cracker cattle, which are about as different from a Highland as you can get, but are two breeds that will thrive in the area.

What’s my motivation?

One of the first things potential new breeders must ask themselves is why they are getting into rare breeds in the first place. Is it because you want to have something no one else raises? Because you have a niche on your farm that a rare breed might fill? Because you are truly willing to become a dedicated breed steward and conservationist? Or because you hope to get rich quick? What do you hope to accomplish by raising a rare breed?

Conservation is a word that gets knocked around quite a bit these days, but when dealing with rare breeds, it’s important to have a good grasp of what that word means in the real world. If you are dealing with a breed that is in the critical conservation category, it’s important to maintain distinct bloodlines to maximize your genetic variability. Are you going to be able to maintain males of two or three different bloodlines, or will you only be able to house one herd or flock sire? A critically rare breed can get into a genetic bottleneck pretty quickly without several distinct lines to work with.

What is your main goal? Your plan will be much different if you are just going to have a few sheep around in order to harvest a little wool than if you plan to raise meat and market it to restaurants. Be sure you have the basic needs covered of whatever breed you choose. If you get into sheep, be aware that many breeds will need sheared in the spring, and good shearers are becoming a rare commodity these days. Is there someone in your area who can shear for you, or will you need to learn to do it yourself? Or, would it be best to choose a hair sheep breed that will shed its fleece? There is generally one breed that will suit each purpose, but there isn’t always an all-purpose breed that suits every situation. Make sure you know what your breed or species needs before you start.

There is no one answer to any of those questions, because each person, each situation and each breed is different.

Guess who’s coming for dinner?

No rule exists that says if you want to keep a rare breed, you have to be a breeder. However, if you do decide to breed, you will be faced with the question of what to do with the offspring.

If you plan to sell meat, check into your local processing options and the local laws regarding on-farm sales. Small-scale processors are becoming rare as well. You may have to travel some distance to get your animals processed, which can add to the cost involved and can increase the stress on the animals prior to slaughter. Most small processors will process beef, lamb and pork, but many will not do poultry, as the equipment required is different and often costly to set up. If you are planning to sell meat directly from your farm, it can’t be stressed enough to do your homework and check into your local laws. Each state varies; some allow several thousand dollars of “farm-gate sales,” but others will not, and farmers’ market sales are becoming more regulated in some states. Many states will require sales tax or a meat broker’s license as well. Do you plan to ship meat across the country or sell to restaurants? In general, USDA inspection is required in order to do either one of those things. You may not like or agree with your state’s laws, but it doesn’t pay to ignore them.

Don’t think your conservation efforts are any less important if you just want to have a small flock or herd simply because you enjoy that animal and have no intention of breeding.

Even a nonbreeding group can have an impact as an educational tool. If people nearly fall out of their cars looking at your Pineywoods cows or watching the antics of your Arapawa goats, take things a step further and look into doing farm tours. Zoos and living history farms may not be able to contribute much to the breeding population, but they have a significant impact on educating people about the issues rare breeds face in today’s world.

If you have no experience raising the species you have chosen for your new farm venture, what’s next? Consider getting a “starter breed” just to gain some experience. If your goal is to raise American Chinchilla rabbits, but you’ve never raised rabbits before and the closest American Chinchilla breeder is five states away, consider starting with some locally available rabbits. This will allow you to ensure your setup works before investing time and money in sourcing hard-to-come-by genetics, and it will get you a little further along on the inevitable learning curve.

Market report

Rare breeds don’t fit the popular market. That’s one of the reasons they have become rare, because they don’t fit the mass market industrial niche. Thank goodness.

The world will not beat a path to your door in order to purchase your rare breed products, whether meat, fiber or dairy. You will need to put some effort into developing a good marketing plan — and you’ll have to keep plugging away at it regularly. According to Beranger, “Probably 99 percent of the rare breed enterprises that fail do so because they failed to market sufficiently or well enough.”

Rare breed products are different, and a lot of public education has to go into getting people to appreciate the difference.

Consumers have become accustomed to certain characteristics when buying grocery store beef. Folks used to a 16-ounce feedlot T-bone with washed-out color and half an inch of fat on it are going to look askance at an 8-ounce Pineywoods grassfed steak with little to no fat and a deep, iron-rich red color. The taste also is remarkably different, and some people will not be able to deal with the fact that the grassfed rare breed product tastes different or actually has flavor, period.

Educating people about the difference and what they are getting with the rare breed product will take some time, but once they appreciate the product, you will likely have a loyal customer for life.

Rare breeds also will take longer and can be more expensive overall to raise. You won’t get a rare breed lamb to a market weight of 150 pounds in five months. It can take a year or more for the animal to mature, and for the meat-to-bone ratio to make it worth processing the animal.

If you think you will get around these issues by simply selling breeding stock or pet animals, think again. Not every animal born will be breeding-stock quality. There is an old rule of thumb that says that only 10 percent of offspring will be of the quality necessary to make it as breeding stock. That is especially true of males, as they will have the opportunity to pass their genetic material on more than a female. As Beranger points out, “Not every animal can be a pet in the real world.”

It is entirely possible to create a demand for high-quality breeding stock of any species or breed, but a number of variables come into play with how many new breeders will ultimately be interested in your breeding stock. It can take years, if not decades, of selection and culling to develop a good linebred flock or herd.

If raising rare breeds were easy, then everyone would be doing it. The truth is, raising rare breeds can be challenging, and, in some instances, heartbreaking when things don’t work out the way you plan or hope. In the end, though, the reward for success makes every tough day, long night, or small paycheck worthwhile.

For me? I’ll have my breeds rare, please and thank you.

By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper; by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. They specialize in Blanc de Hotot, American Chinchilla, American, Silver Fox and Crème d’Argent rabbits, and market them to local restaurants and consumers.