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The loss of livestock diversity.

I came of age at a time when America was actively concerned about the rapid demise of the world s wildlife populations. Groups were formed, money was raised and laws were created. Thanks to their efforts, several species that were nearing extinction are now off the endangered list. Who wouldn't want to save the whales or the lowland gorillas? Little did we know that while we were fighting for their survival, several species of the farm animals that kept our great grandparents alive, breathed their last breath.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimates there are at least 150 breeds of livestock and poultry now critically threatened with extinction. We have laws to protect the spotted owl but nothing to protect the fewer than 200 Florida Cracker cattle, American Cream draft horses, or red wattle hogs registered in this country each year, all breeds originating right here in America. Once they are gone, they are gone forever!

The uniqueness of heritage breeds

Our ancestors that settled this country did so at great peril to themselves and their families. Putting food on the table and working the land meant life or death and it was their livestock that made the difference. Through selective breeding and survival of the fittest, each area began to develop breeds of livestock that was uniquely designed to meet their needs. The Piney woods cattle were developed to thrive in the southern pine forests while the Large Black Hogs were developed to feed on the orchards and pastures. Since the farmer that developed and bred those animals was also the one that ate their meat, you can bet he selected his breeders based on taste too.

These old or "heritage" breeds of livestock have been passed from generation to generation but we have come to the end of the line for many farm families and their herds. Our society has changed so drastically since World War II that farms seldom pass on to the children intact. The original farmers are dying and their farms are being sold to developers. The best breeding animals are being sold for slaughter and the herd books thrown out with the old photos and grandma's knick knacks.

Why save them?

Just as with the spotted owl, some things should be saved just for the sake of preventing it from disappearing off the face of the earth forever, but there are greater reasons for saving our heritage livestock. The only thing in life that is certain is change. Things change and they sometimes go in cycles or as I've heard it said, "the pendulum swings." What that means is that some day, we may not want our pork, beef, and chicken, to come from one single breed that is full of medications and chemicals. More and more people will want a selection of tastes and textures in their meat. I believe in fact the pendulum is already swinging back in the direction of wholesome, chemical free food raised locally. Look at the increase in heritage seeds. Just as in the livestock, these heritage seeds would have been lost if not for a few people with the insight to continue raising and saving the huge varieties of vegetables that we are just now experiencing on a larger scale.

Because of the practice of artificial insemination, I have heard it said that most dairy cows in existence today came from one of three bulls or their progeny. Genetic diversity is what will save our food supply if our food system is ever attacked by terrorists introducing germ warfare. Even without outside help, nature has a way of compounding genetic problems when we continue to inbreed. When bloodlines or species die out, we lose the DNA that could provide a defense against a mutated bacteria or virus. I tend to be an optimist however, and I think it is much more likely that we will choose to have a variety in our food rather than losing our current commercial seed stock.

These breeds would be no more than pets if they didn't offer something to our small farms. Heritage livestock were developed by small farmers so they are perfect for the way the new generation of small farmers operate. They don't need antibiotics in their feed to stay alive, nor do they need chemical wormers, as long as you use correct animal husbandry. Your great grandfather didn't have the luxury of giving his children antibiotics when they were sick, much less give it to healthy livestock. That's the beauty of heritage breeds, they are easier to raise, hardier animals and the taste is exquisite. If you want to raise livestock, there is no reason not to raise heritage breeds.

What you can do

No one can save the world but all of us can do something. For just $30 a year you can support the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and become an active member. If you are currently buying your meat from the grocery store, try finding a local producer that raises heritage breeds. Not only will you be supporting a local farmer but you'll be surprised at the quality and taste. If we don't eat the heritage breeds of livestock, farmers cannot afford to keep their breeding seed stock.

If you have but an acre or less, you can have a flock of rare poultry to provide eggs and meat for your family and earn extra money for the home. If you have a few acres, then you can raise your own hogs and goats, and almost anyone can raise rabbits. If you have enough land for cattle then you have enough land for the rare heritage breeds of cattle.

In addition to the heritage breeds of meat producing animals, there are several breeds of draft horses. Draft horses are very versatile animals. You can ride them, drive them (pull a wagon), plow and other farm chores, and of course show them at fairs and draft horse events. They are known as the gentle giants because they are so calm and willing to work for you. If you have never been around draft horses, that's okay too. There are local draft horse clubs that would be more than willing to introduce you to the world of draft horses and teach you to harness and drive them. We have found the draft horse clubs to be an excellent place to meet and fellowship with like-minded people.

Conclusion

Even if these animals weren't rare and endangered, they would be worth raising strictly for the benefits they provide small farmers. If we don't work to save them now, they may not be there when we need some trait they possess. Unlike wild life, there are few organizations actively working to protect and provide for the future of these unique animals so their future is in our hands alone. If you won't do it for their sake, do it for your own. Heritage meats are bringing a premium at niche markets these days!

For more information, contact the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy at PO Box 477 Pittsboro, NC 27312; 919-542-5704 or go to www. albc-usa.org. You may contact the author at www.wolfemountainfarms.com or call 417-683-1134.
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Title Annotation:Homestead livestock
Author:Wolfe, Kay
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1198
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