Heritage breeds are the animals our great-grandparents and their ancestors raised on small farms. These rare breeds were developed to possess traits such as disease resistance, adaptability, self-sufficiency, fertility, longevity, intrinsic mothering abilities, and more. Farmers who raised these breeds focused on creating a “well-rounded” animal versus a specialized one designed to fill one aspect of production. What resulted were breeds ideally suited for small farms and backyard homesteads.
Today, many historic breeds are disappearing from the American agricultural landscape. Industrialization has led many farmers to rely on modern lines developed for maximum production. Because of this trend, more than 180 breeds of livestock and poultry are currently threatened with extinction. Even more startling is the fact that more than 61 rare breeds are listed as critically endangered – meaning their numbers raise the most concern and their ultimate fate will likely be determined by the actions of the current generation.
Santa Cruz sheep are a feral breed named for the California Channel Islands haven that they once inhabited. Their exact history is uncertain, but they have been documented on the island since the late 1800s. Escaped sheep from island ranches may have, over time, formed the Santa Cruz breed. These “runaway sheep” would have faced geographic isolation, a Mediterranean-like climate, a harsh terrain, and minimal forage; giving rise to the hardy, self-sufficient Santa Cruz breed of today. In 1978, the Nature Conservancy acquired Santa Cruz Island, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy helped move some of the sheep into the hands of mainland breeders. Today, fewer than 200 registered Santa Cruz sheep exist in the United States.
The Santa Cruz sheep are relatively small and come in a mix of colors, including white (predominant), black, brown and spotted. The sheep have little wool on their faces, bellies and legs, and may have short, wool-less tails. The fleece is fine to medium and is said to be very soft. The Santa Cruz breed embodies valuable genetics that may be needed in the future. It can serve as a meat and fiber source for the small family farm, but serious conservation breeders also are needed to ensure the breed’s future.
A true American original, the American Buff goose is one of only two geese breeds developed in North America. The history of the breed’s development is somewhat obscure, but it is thought that the breed descends from the wild Greylag goose of Europe and Northern Asia. In 1947, the breed was accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection. American Buffs were once prized possessions on U.S. homesteads, but geese lost favor to the quicker growing chickens and turkeys. Today, the American Buff is an endangered breed, numbering fewer than 500 breeding animals in the United States.
As its name implies, the American Buff is a dark buff over most of its body. The color grows lighter as it approaches the abdomen, where it turns almost white. The moderately broad head has dark, hazel eyes and a light orange bill. The American Buff is a medium-sized goose, with geese weighing 16 pounds and ganders weighing 18 pounds. The breed makes an ideal general purpose farm fowl that provides a nice carcass, good growth rate, and reasonable number of eggs for a family. American Buffs are often described as calm, curious, loyal and even affectionate toward their owners.
From the fields of western France comes the Poitou donkey, an ancient breed and a living legend. While the breed’s exact origin is a mystery, historical documents suggest it was introduced to France more than 2,000 years ago. For centuries, the Poitou has been valued in its homeland for the famed mules it produces when bred to Mulassier mares. After World War II, the demand for mules declined and the Poitou breed’s fate was threatened. By 1980, fewer than 80 Poitous were left in the world.
Historically, the Poitou breed was never known as a pack or work animal – it was solely used in mule breeding. The Poitou is known for its extremely long, silky hair, which, if kept ungroomed, will form dreadlocks reaching the ground. The breed is tall, standing 14 to 15 hands at the withers, and weighs 750 to 950 pounds. Poitous have muscular, heavy bodies, large heads and long ears. They are black and dark brown, with no dorsal stripe. Today, the breed is in critical need of quality stewards. Some animals have been imported to the United States, but there are still fewer than 2,000 breeding animals in the world.
Isolated in the hill farms of Ireland, Kerry cattle have thrived for more than 2,000 years. Their history makes them one of the oldest European cattle breeds and one of the first cattle breeds selected primarily for milk production. The Kerry was typically found on small mountain holdings where they were known as the “poor man’s cattle.” The Kerries were left to fend for themselves, which led to the development of a versatile, hardy breed that can survive with limited oversight. Eventually, crossbreeding and the importation of other cattle breeds led to the Kerry’s decline.
Today, the Kerry remains a critically rare breed, but its numbers are slowly increasing. They serve as a nice addition to the family farm, providing milk, meat and draft power. The breed will thrive in conditions that would cause other cattle to starve. Kerry cows are small and lean, averaging 800 to 1,000 pounds. The Kerry is a “black beauty,” with a solid black coat and some white allowed on the underline. Kerry milk cows are an economic producer of quality milk, averaging 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of milk per lactation period, and the milk is unique in that the globules of butterfat are smaller than those from most dairy breeds, making the milk more easily digestible. Although a good fit for small farms, the active nature of Kerry cattle makes them best suited for experienced cattle ranchers.
As the oldest established English horse breed, the Cleveland Bay is a breed of dignity, strength and performance. The breed takes its name from Cleveland, England, but it was once known in the region as the Chapman horse. The breed was used by “chapmen,” or traveling salesmen, who used the animals to carry packed goods before the advent of roads. The breed’s strong, short legs were capable of carrying great weights over hilly, rugged terrain. By the mid-1800s, the Cleveland Bay had gained fame for its ability to produce the quintessential carriage horse when crossed with Thoroughbreds. This discovery led to the purebred Cleveland Bay dwindling in number due to outcrossing. By 1960, only six purebred Cleveland Bay stallions remained alive.
Today, the Cleveland Bay horse is still a critically rare breed that is even-tempered and intelligent. Cleveland Bays are always bay with no white markings except an occasional small star. The horses are 16 to 17 hands at the withers and weigh 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. The breed is well-muscled and very sure-footed. New followers must be aware that the Cleveland Bay is a born athlete requiring committed breeders and buyers.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect more than 180 rare 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 $35 per year. For more information or to join, call 919-542-5704 or visit the ALBC website.
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