America’s rich agricultural history includes untold numbers of livestock breeds that developed right along with the farms and farming practices of the day. These animals were sometimes so suited to a specific geographical area that they served their purpose almost perfectly. Most of these so-called “heritage breeds” never enjoyed widespread fame, but many became popular regionally, nationally and sometimes internationally. Most of these breeds of a bygone era fell out of favor, as evolving agricultural models called for fewer and more “standardized” breeds. So we now have hogs and cattle whose cuts will fit neatly in a shipping box, but the cost of that efficiency is profound.
Many heritage breeds no longer exist; many others are in danger of extinction. These include some of the best-tasting poultry and pigs, some of the hardiest cattle, and America’s own draft horse. Heritage breeds store a wealth of genetic resources that are important for our future. They also embody histories, cultures and traditions that tell of our past. By their very nature and genetics, heritage breeds can make a perfect animal addition to small, integrated and niche-based farms.
Here’s a glimpse of U.S. history told through America’s own heritage breeds.
Making “Granny” Proud: American Cream Draft Horse
The American Cream Draft is the only draft horse breed developed within the United States. The breed originated in Iowa in the early 1900s with a horse named Old Granny. Old Granny was a cream-colored draft mare who consistently produced cream offspring. During the 1930s, cream draft horses became popular in the counties surrounding Melbourne, Iowa, leading local breeders to develop the American Cream Draft. Just as the breed was becoming established, however, the market for draft horses collapsed as agricultural practices mechanized.
American Creams are medium to large animals, averaging 15 to 16.3 hands at the withers. Mares average 1,600 to 1,800 pounds, and stallions range from 1,800 to 2,000 pounds. The breed has a characteristic cream color with pink skin, amber eyes, and white manes and tails. They are well-known for their good dispositions and willingness to work. The American Cream is critically rare, but its numbers are increasing due to its unique appearance, history and natural fit within sustainable farming practices.
Southern Born and Bred: Pineywoods Cattle
With almost 500 years of adaptation to the American Southeast, Pineywoods Cattle have history on their side. As one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the United States, descending from Spanish cattle brought to the Americas in the early 1500s, the breed was shaped primarily by agricultural and environmental conditions in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and other areas of the southeastern United States. Regional terrains and some human selection have resulted in a breed that is heat tolerant, long-lived, parasite and disease resistant, and productive on marginal forage.
Historically, Pineywoods were beef cattle occasionally used in dairying. The breed also served a critical role as oxen in the development of the timber industry of the Southeast. Pineywoods are small and rugged with cows weighing 600 to 800 pounds and bulls averaging 800 to1,200 pounds. Most Pineywoods cattle are horned, though horn lengths and shapes vary. The breed includes most solid colors and many of the spotting patterns known to cattle. Fewer than 2,000 Pineywoods Cattle are alive today. Many are in the hands of deep-rooted Southern families striving to continue the Pineywoods’ legacy.
A Founding Father’s Legacy: American Mammoth Jackstock
The American Mammoth Jackstock ass was developed in the earliest days of the United States and is an integral part of American agricultural history. George Washington helped develop the breed. In fact, in 1788, Washington began offering his Mammoth Jacks for stud service. The popularity of the breed grew rapidly, and, by the 1920s, there were more than 5 million Mammoth Jacks in the United States.
The primary function of the breed has always been to produce draft mules. Mammoth Jacks are sturdy and tall, with massive legs and large, well-made heads. The ears are especially long, often measuring 33 inches from tip to tip. Weights range between 900 and 1,200 pounds. Black used to be considered the only suitable color for the breed. However, the market has changed to favor sorrel animals and other colors – even paint. With only 3,000 to 4,000 Jackstocks left in the country, breeders are working to preserve this living piece of America’s early history.
King Cotton’s Prince Charming: Cotton Patch Geese
Once commonplace on farms in southeastern states, Cotton Patch Geese were used to weed cotton and cornfields up until the 1950s. Cotton Patch Geese are remembered in the rural South for helping many farm families survive the Great Depression by providing a regular source of meat, eggs and grease. The breed is thought to have been derived from European stock brought to the United States during the colonial period.
Cotton Patches are a slight- to medium-sized breed. Because of their smaller size, they have the ability to adjust to higher temperatures more readily than many larger breeds of geese. The Cotton Patch’s head is rounded, and the beak is dished. They retain the ability to fly well beyond their first year, easily clearing 5- or 6-foot fences without a running start, which allows the birds to escape predators, unlike heavier geese. Once a mainstay of southern cotton production, the Cotton Patch goose is now critically rare. The dedication of a handful of breeders has helped ensure this breed’s future.
Not for the Faint of Heart: Myotonic Goat
The Myotonic Goat originated in the 1880s when a traveling farm laborer named John Tinsley arrived in Tennessee with unusual, stiff goats that appeared to “faint” when startled. Goats of this type became well-known across the region as they were less apt to climb fences and escape from pastures. The defining characteristic of the breed is a genetic condition known as myotonia congenita, which causes the muscle cells to experience prolonged contraction when the goat is startled. The stiffness of these contractions can cause the goat to fall down, giving the appearance of fainting. The goats do not seem to be bothered by the condition. In fact, they are often seen continuing to chew their cud as if nothing happened.
In the 1950s, the breed was introduced in central Texas. History and culture have given way to a number of names for the breed including: Tennessee Fainting, Tennessee Meat, Texas Wooden Leg, Stiff, Nervous, and Scare goats.
Myotonic Goats range in weight from 60 to 175 pounds, and they have a heavy, muscled conformation. Most are horned. The breed produces almost all colors known in goats. Most have short hair, but long-haired goats do exist. While the breed’s numbers are improving, there’s still a need to be “scared” for its uncertain future.
Kentucky’s Other Bourbon: Bourbon Red Turkey
In the late 1800s, J.F. Barbee developed the Bourbon Red Turkey breed. The breed was originally called the “Bourbon Butternut,” but for some reason, the birds did not attract attention. Barbee then renamed them “Bourbon Reds,” Bourbon for his home county of Bourbon, Kentucky, and Red for the rich, chestnut color of the plumage. The name caught on, and the change seemed to work well as a marketing tool when sales and popularity increased.
The Bourbon Red is an attractive bird for either exhibition or the backyard. They are active foragers and do well in pastured production systems. Weights range from 14 pounds for young hens to 23 pounds for young toms. The historic breed numbers fewer than 5,000 breeding birds in the United States.
Could It Be Susan B. Buckeye? Buckeye Chicken
More than 20 years before women earned the right to vote in the United States, Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio, was paving her own path. In 1896, Metcalf created the Buckeye Chicken breed, the only American chicken developed entirely by a woman. She envisioned creating a fowl that was not “lazy” and could actively forage to find a lot of its own food.
The Buckeye is a dual-purpose chicken with a deep, lustrous red plumage. Roosters weigh approximately nine pounds; hens weigh approximately six and a half pounds and lay medium-sized, brown eggs. They make flavorful table birds. Thanks to their pea comb, they are cold-weather hardy. Buckeyes adapt to a variety of living conditions, and they do best under free-range conditions. They are an active fowl noted for their unique personalities and docile dispositions, making them an excellent choice for the novice chicken enthusiast. In 2009, fewer than 500 breeding birds were reported in the United States.
Mother Nature Meets Father Time: Hog Island Sheep
The Hog Island Sheep breed had its beginnings in the 18th century. The breed was developed from British sheep living on Virginia’s barrier island, Hog Island, which was inhabited by America’s earliest colonists. The sheep evolved in response to the island’s natural selection for hardiness, foraging ability and reproductive efficiency. In the 1930s, hurricanes destroyed Hog Island and forced inhabitants back to the mainland; however, many of the sheep were left on the island and reverted to a feral state. In the 1970s, the Nature Conservancy purchased Hog Island, and most of the sheep were removed. Today, the breed is extremely rare, with fewer than 200 animals registered annually.
Hog Island Sheep vary in appearance. Most of the sheep are white-wooled, though about 20 percent are black. Ewes may be horned or polled. Rams can have horns, or are somewhat polled. Mature animals weigh between 90 and 150 pounds. Hog Island Sheep are excellent foragers and prefer to browse rather than graze. They stay in tight flocks and are extremely alert. As a rich part of American history, the breed needs stewards to help it survive.
Hoofing it in the Corn Belt: Mulefoot Hog
The Mulefoot is an American hog breed named for its most distinctive feature, the solid, noncloven hoof that looks like the hoof of a mule. The origin of the Mulefoot is unclear, but the breed is likely to have descended from Spanish hogs brought to the Americas beginning in the 1500s. By 1900, the Mulefoot had become a standardized breed and was valued for ease of fattening and production of meat, lard and, especially, hams. Mulefoot hogs were distributed throughout the Corn Belt and were common along the Mississippi River Valley.
Mulefoot Hogs are compact in appearance and weigh 400 to 600 pounds. They are solid black, with white points occurring rarely. The breed forages well and thrives under extensive husbandry. Sows make excellent, calm mothers. In the early 1900s, there were more than 200 herds of purebred Mulefoot Hogs. As industrial pork production replaced traditional breeds, their numbers declined dramatically. In 2009, fewer than 200 purebred Mulefoots were documented in the United States.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect more than 170 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Founded in 1977, ALBC is the pioneer organization in the United States working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. ALBC’s mission is to ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.
Membership in the organization is $30 per year.
For more information or to join, call 919-542-5704 or visit the website www.ALBC-USA.org.
Carolina born and bred, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Basset Hound and orange tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.