Rare Livestock Offers Alternatives

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf some of these animals were a salamander or fish government officials would be beside themselves to save them…extinction is forever. If they were museum artifacts some would be considered priceless. Instead of CONSERVING these animals and preserving them on the small farm habitats they were developed for, American legislators via the National Animal Identification System will eliminate them. Some of these animals the US is the only place in the world they exist – this means the end of several breeds. America’s food supply is arguably at risk – over 90% of dairy cattle are the Holstein breed, bred for confinement production on a high concentrate diet and their ability to produce large amounts of milk. This they do well – so well that many other breeds have been all but eliminated. In the early 1960s – within the lifetime of many readers – the Guernsey was a common site…a breed second only to the Holstein, and a breed that produced such a quality of milk there was a Guernsey brand of milk. Today the gold and white Guernsey cow is held in the hands of a relative few breeders. Their ability to produce milk on grass is no longer valued over the quantity and confinement abilities of the Holstein.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat if the fairly narrow genetic base of the Holstein is afflicted with a disease? What if in those large, volume in few areas confinement become targets for terrorism? What if by necessity we HAD to return to a grass based system? The Guernsey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Milking Shorthorn all perform very well in those conditions they were developed for. The excellent grazers also include the critically endangered Dutch Belted and milking Devon – both down to less than 2,000 globally. Chickens are another area where a narrow base and a handful of corporate companies control our food supply. They tell us how they will grow it, what we want and what we will pay. The idea the CONSUMER can make CHOICES is overlooked. Poultry breeds that developed America but are the wrong color, don’t adapt to confinement, aren’t specialists in their field have been left in the hands of a few breeders – and those are in the sights of programs like the National Animal Identification System. If these breeders and their animals are eliminated…many of our livestock breeds will be gone forever. As it is, commercial production of egg chickens, meat chickens, and turkeys is dominated by fewer than 10 multinational breeding companies.

Confinement operations are there by demand for cheap food. The grouping of large numbers of animals means disease can take root and spread quickly, leading to preventatives in the form of antibiotics. Growth hormones implanted in the ears of cattle push for maximum growth, as in a quantity situation the faster they achieve market weight the less feed into them and the more profit. The modern confinement dairy cow is suited to high confinement – walking from her bed to the feed bunk to the water to the bed…broken up by walking into the parlor to be milked. The modern market hog, raised on cement for ease in cleaning large quantities of manure, may never touch dirt. The ability to graze is something that never occurs to people when discussing hogs, even though several breeds can be raised on pasture and excel at doing so. There is no smell to animals properly stocked on pasture. There is no volume of waste and reliance on fuels to move feed to them…they move themselves to fresh graze when they want.

The Jersey hog, the Conestoga horse, the Naragansett Pacer horse….these are just a few of the livestock breeds gone forever. There are no more. There are breeds within the last 50 years eliminated. No one takes note of this. “FAO estimates that somewhere in the world at least one breed of traditional livestock dies out every week. Many traditional breeds have disappeared as farmers focus on new breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens. Of the 3,831 breeds of cattle, water buffalo, goats, pigs, sheep, horses, and donkeys believed to have existed in this century, 16 percent have become extinct, and a further 15 percent are rare.”

The Exmoor pony is believed to be around since the Ice Age. Jacob sheep since Biblical times. It includes livestock breeds kept by President Jefferson and the Royal Family in Britain. The umbrella of rare breeds includes animals that can forage for themselves…pigs with higher maternal instincts eliminating the need for farrowing crates….even the most popular breeds of geese are not safe. If we were to find a letter from the 1700s or a desk from 150 years ago it would be a treasure. Is not the living animals tracing to those times worth less, especially when they have qualities that are useful and needed today?

The American Cream, America’s only native breed of draft horse, has less than 500 animals left. The Ankole Watusi cattle, “the cattle of kings” dates back 6,000 years with pictures of them appearing in Egyptian pyramids. P. T. Barnum in 1840 brought the Dutch Belted to the US only by promising to use them in his circus – 100 years ago the Dutch Belted led butterfat tests in the US – today they are critically endangered.

Some food activists argue that food for livestock takes away food from humans. The fact is that over two-thirds of the feed fed to animals consists of substances that are either undesirable or completely unsuited for human food. Grazing animals make use of land that is too steep, too rocky or otherwise unsuited to raising crops. In addition to meat and milk, rare breeds offer fleeces from sheep, eggs from poultry. The ability to forage means a natural non-chemical means of bug control, the grazing of lands to keep overgrown land from becoming brush fires that make the news and because they spread manure rather than having it in a confined area, a natural means of fertilizer without the toxic affects of being in small areas. Confinement of animals and humans and the waste that it results in is among the leading causes sited in global warming, and among the biggest pollution factors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmong the ways these less popular breeds are valid and useful in today’s world…besides the previously mentioned reasons of thriving without confinement and using forage otherwise wasted. The Tamworth hog is among the breeds of hogs able to raise their pigs without protection afforded by farrowing crates. In Florida a sheep producer had problems with vultures and alligators killing lambs before they had a chance to get up after birthing. He began using North Country Cheviot rams – a breed known for their ability to get up fast after birth, and hardiness once started – and his next lamb crop was much improved in numbers. The Berkshire hog has rebounded somewhat in numbers since Japanese consumers demanded them as an export market, but still are not kept for US consumption as other breeds are better adapted to high confinement situations – which are criticized but until consumers demand what small farmers can produce (quality food without indoor confinement) the government leans towards the agribusiness companies that pad their salaries. The consumer has a choice in what goes on their table and a voice in how it is grown – they must use it now.

A farm of the future, if American consumers DEMAND it, could be a mix of today and times past. An Ayrshire or Milking Devon cow herd grazes in the field, with their weaned calves in a good quality pasture across the fence. A flock of Tunis or Cheviot sheep provide meat for the family as well as a good fleece which is used in the home and makes items to sell to support the farm. Dominique, Sussex and New Hampshire chickens again have a place to scratch and dodge after grasshoppers, consuming a diet of bugs, seeds and grasses that make antibiotics in the feed obsolete. Due to the cost of fuel, a pair of horses haul manure from the barns to the crop land, giving nutrient rich minerals the land was starving for with the use of chemical fertilizers. The farmyard is a living, breathing, coexisting unit, not a stark sterile laboratory with piles of manure produced that offended neighbors. It is not, as some believe, stepping back – it is making use of what we have. It is not too late…small farmers and consumers can make it happen to the benefit of all except ag corporations and politicians – if we speak for our rights now. Our food supply is too important to be put in the hands of a few.

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