- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

Much has been said about heritage furniture, heritage homes or clothing. But heritage livestock?
American history includes unique cattle, sheep and poultry that need to be preserved as much as any Colonial estate. A handful of breeders around the country are making sure unusual livestock such as beef Devon cattle and the Bourbon red turkey survive the centuries.
Because of the tendency of factory farms to use only a few breeds, some of America's classic livestock are in danger of dying off, says Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds for Colonial Williamsburg, which re-creates an 18th-century lifestyle.
"Most folks don't understand that it is not just wild animals that are in danger," she says. "There are also breeds of sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens and all the domestic livestock that we depend upon, which are being lost."
Examples include Jacob sheep, a black-and-white-spotted animal that can have up to six horns. The Jacob is listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list, which means there are fewer then 2,500 registered in North America each year.
The milking Devon, a red cow with horns that was once a staple on American farms, now registers at fewer than 400 in North America today. Most Americans are more used to the black and white wheat checks cow.
The Leicester longwool sheep, which has a lustrous coat of wool that falls in ringlets, was used by Colonial farmers because they were easy to feed, had valuable meat and matured quickly. George Washington was especially interested in this breed, Mrs. Shirley says.
And then there's Dominique chickens, which come with white feathers with black speckles, capped with a red crown. Their very hardy constitutions and thick plumage protects them from low winter temperatures. It was one of the first breeds of chickens developed in the 18th-century mid-Atlantic states.
Many of these breeds still live at Colonial Williamsburg to create as authentic an atmosphere as possible at the popular vacation spot. But they barely exist outside such shelters as today's industrial farming has dramatically altered the way farmers use livestock and poultry. Farming now depends on a few highly specialized breeds such as the Holstein cow, which produces far more milk then other breeds, causing the traditional breeds to fall out of popularity and face extinction.
Part of the reason for the homogeneity of America's livestock is the industry's heavy use of artificial insemination. This especially affects America's turkey population because farmers, wanting a predictable brood, have relied almost entirely on the practice.
"Virtually every mass-produced turkey in this county is genetically the same as every other turkey," Mrs. Shirley says. While Americans like the big turkeys produced for the supermarket, the industry is narrowing the gene pool by allowing the heritage breeds to die out.
"If we lose genetic diversity, we're painting ourselves into a corner," she says.
Some farmers around the country want to preserve both the past and variety in the nation's animal gene pool. The New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy maintains a variety of heritage livestock on 70 acres at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass.
"Older breeds thrive very well free ranging on grass," says Tom Gardner, president of NEHBC. But the production animals, such as the black and white Holstein cow, are bred to provide a specific product and must be fed a specific diet.
"That, uniformity, is not only genetically dangerous, but it has created animals that are less able to forage in a hardy manner as their forerunners were," he says.
The older breeds were developed to be self-reliant, he says, and although they grow slower or produce less milk than common commercial breeds, they eat grass, have stronger maternal instincts and can survive in natural environments. In contrast, production animals are kept healthy through enormous amounts of antibiotics, which end up in humans.
There are some attempts to counter this trend. Michigan State University in East Lansing, hosts a two-day Heritage Livestock Exhibition every March to showcase how animals looked and were raised during America's founding period. Farmers bring rare breeds for public demonstrations. The public gets a chance to drive a team of oxen, hitch up a draft horse, and spin wool straight off Churro sheep, which were the original breed raised and cherished by Navajos.
Children are taught how to make art from chicken and turkey feathers. Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 schoolchildren, along with the general public, attend each year.
"We are helping to educate the general public on the reasons of keeping these rare and endangered breeds of livestock," says Neil Ketner, the 4-H director who organizes the event. He was the first breeder in the Midwest to raise Jacob sheep. In the past three years, he also began raising Wensleydales, a sheep that comes from Britain.
"They look like walking haystacks," he says, referring to the sheep's 18- to 20-inch wool coat.
When hoof-and-mouth disease hit the United Kingdom two years ago, one third of the Wensleydale population died. Only 1,300 breeding females remain in the world.
Epidemics such as hoof-and-mouth disease motivate farmers to continue their work in maintaining biodiversity because a narrow gene pool makes herds susceptible to mass disease, says Don Bixby, technical director at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Based in Pittsboro, N.C., the ALBC is a clearinghouse for information on livestock and genetic diversity.
"While most people understand the danger of mono-cropping, we go right ahead and do it" with animals, he says.
The industrial breeds require high maintenance and an infrastructure that, he adds, "We can't be sure will always be there."
But marketing heritage livestock is a tough sell.
"When visitors come to Williamsburg, they don't want to see manure. They don't want to smell anything or have flies," Mr. Bixby says. "We live in such a sanitized society, that those things are completely repulsive to people in the 21st century."
Thus, nonprofit farmers and organizations such as Colonial Williamsburg attempt to package heritage livestock in a way that piques the interest of the general public.
"It is a shop window to help people engage," Mr. Bixby says, "because Americans are so disassociated from the culture of animals and the way our food is produced."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide