What is a “Heritage” Breed?

Reader Contribution by Cait Carpenter
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With the recent movement across the country towards sustainably-produced, organic, humane, Eco-friendly, grass-fed meats, one label in particular jumps out at me in places where it shouldn’t: “heritage”. The heritage label is rarely seen in the supermarket, but many smaller producers are jumping on the bandwagon, for good (and bad) reasons. Heritage breed livestock are known for being a bit hardier in conditions that pasture-based and non-conventional producers raise their animals in, they generally have better parasite and disease resistance, and it just feels good to help preserve an endangered breed with historical and cultural significance.

Unfortunately, the term “heritage” is muddled in many ways and leads to some confusion from the consumer and sometimes even the producer. The organization that coined the term “heritage”, The Livestock Conservancy, defines that heritage breeds, as quoted from their informational website, ” … are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers. These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment, and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture.”

The Livestock Conservancy is dedicated to preserving endangered heritage breeds that have fallen by the wayside and been replaced by industrial-type breeds that are better suited to conventional animal production practices. Heritage breeds are typically bred for specific climates, topography (mountains versus plains versus swampy woodlands), and use. They also must be able to breed naturally (unlike most industrial poultry varieties including Broad-Breasted turkeys and Cornish cross broilers). The organization also keeps a Conservation Priority List that outlines specific breeds of eleven different species and organizes them according to level of rarity.

There’s a laundry list of reasons why or why not to raise heritage breeds, and that’s for another post. Awareness is the first key step in preserving these genetically valuable animals; the second key step is integrity from producers. When buying meat labeled as “heritage”, do research to ensure that actual heritage breed stock is used at the farm — or, if you are the producer, do your part in keeping purebred heritage-type breeds if they appropriately suit your needs. Angus cattle, Broad-Breasted turkeys, and Cornish cross broiler chickens are not heritage breeds, and these are only a few of the commonly mistaken animals. They may work perfectly for a producer, but honesty and understanding of this particular label are key for ensuring its integrity and meaningfulness. Heritage means a lot when applied properly.

Pictured: Stephen, Royal Palm tom turkey

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