What are Heritage Livestock Breeds and Why they are Critical to Food Security?
Have you ever heard of the term heritage breeds? Can you name any heritage livestock breeds? Did you know we only raise heritage breeds on our farm? You’re not alone….most people have no idea about the changes that have occurred over the last century to our livestock population in the US and around the world. Keep reading to learn how and why they are critical to the future of our food system.
What is Heritage Livestock?
According to the Livestock Conservancy, the leading authority on heritage livestock breeds in the US, “heritage animals are the animals that you’d find on your great-grandparents farms. Heritage is an umbrella term that embraces pure breeds of livestock and poultry with deep histories in the United States. These are animals that were bred over time to develop traits that made them suited to specific local environments. Because these breeds have been developed and selected over time, they tend to have better disease resistance, are well-adapted to their environments, and thrive in pasture-based settings.”
Heritage breeds of livestock were created to solve an agricultural problem in a specific area – just like heirloom seeds. Unfortunately, like heirloom seeds, they are rare and in danger of going extinct. This leaves our local and regional food production and food security in corporate hands.
At Risk of Extinction
Are there really endangered and extinct farm animals? Yes. An average of one breed a month becomes extinct. A total of 190 breeds have become extinct over the past 15 years. And it’s devastating. Many of America’s once-common farm animals face extinction if we do not take action now. Rare farm animals represent an irreplaceable piece of earth’s biodiversity and offer incredible variety that may be needed for future farms – robust health, mothering instincts, foraging, and the ability to thrive in a changing climate. These farm animals are a vital part of ensuring food security for our planet – now and for the future. We are proud members of the Livestock Conservancy whose mission it is to save these amazing heritage breeds from extinction. Click here to learn more about this amazing organization working tirelessly to save these historic breeds.
Modern Livestock Breeds
- Only 14 species provide over 90% of the human food supply.
- A whopping 91% of all dairy cows are holsteins. And only 4 other breeds are utilized on industrial dairy farms.
- Fifty years ago 15 different breeds of pig existed. Today only 7 of those breeds remain, the other 8 have become extinct.
- Five breeds of chicken make up the majority of all egg production in the United States. Just five!!
- Seventy percent of the beef cattle market is made up of only 3 breeds of cattle.
The goal of modern livestock breeds is mass production. If the breed is going to survive they must feed the world and make a profit while they are at it. These breeds must grow big and grow fast and if they can’t they are cross-bred, often using artificial insemination, to try and produce an animal that can.
This demand has caused many modern livestock breeds to be unable to thrive or survive without constant intervention from humans. They are unable to forage to meet their basic needs or defend themselves from predators which requires them to live out their entire lives in a barn having every basic need provided to them.
Some of these breeds are so dependent on humans that they cannot reproduce on their own anymore. For example, 99% of all turkeys sold in grocery stores were bred using artificial insemination. Most chickens and turkeys commercially raised for meat have lost the ability to reproduce on their own because they have been bred to grow fast and in a very short amount of time.
Importance of Heritage Breeds
Biodiversity – Rare and valuable genetic traits lost to industrial agriculture endeavors are preserved for the future when you support the conservation of purebred heritage breeds and heirloom seeds.
Healthier –Strong immune systems are passed from mother to young in local born or hatched animals making them naturally resistant to disease and less likely to need antibiotics.
Ethical – Heritage breed conservation follows the traditional production cycle where many animals born became parents for the next generation and only selected animals are harvested for the plate.
Humane – Self-sufficient and hardy for many generations, heritage breeds thrive in small-scale pasture based production. They eat normally, reproduce naturally, are lively and active, and free of painful skeletal problems unlike industrial animals created to gorge on food, requiring artificial insemination to reproduce, who grow at accelerated speed and are born to die at a certain age are prone to suffer.
Improved Flavor – Slow growth and wide range of harvest ages allows for a rich depth and unique range of flavors you cannot find in find the commodity consistency of fast growing industrial animals and plants. The flavors and textures are what chefs like Julia Child raved about missing when our agricultural methods changed to fast and specialized production in the 1950’s.
Truly Local – You strengthen local food security by supporting truly local farms raising livestock & poultry from birth to harvest and plants whose seeds can be saved for the next season.
Help Save Rare & Endangered Livestock Breeds
When you purchase products created or made from pure heritage breeds, you become an important contributor to the work of preserving these endangered animals and the time-tested genes that make them unique and beautiful. Conservation of their proven genetic traits is critically important to the future of agriculture and our food security.
Consider becoming a member of the American Livestock Conservancy. Yearly membership fees are as low as $25 per year and your involvement can help save these critical livestock breeds.
If you don’t have a farmer near you who raises heritage meats, ask them to start! Farmers will grow and produce what their customers are looking for. Right now they are growing modern breeds because that is what the market is asking for. Use your dollars and your voice to change the market.