“We raise heritage pigs.”
Or heritage sheep… or chickens. You hear that all the time, but what does it mean?
Heritage animals are traditional livestock breeds that were raised in the past, by our great grandparents and their parents. Every country, every region of a country had animal and plant species that were bred over time to develop traits that made them particularly well-adapted to the local environmental conditions.
The rise of industrial agriculture changed the dynamic of what the “farmer/business” required from their animals. Breeds used in industrial agriculture are bred for characteristics like faster maturation and higher volumes. In other words, grow fast, put on weight fast, produce lots of milk or eggs, or better yields within confined facilities. The variations found in heritage breed animals are not convenient to the volume producer. (Note: The life span of an “industrial animal” is about 35% shorter because of the intense “work” combined with less natural living conditions. As of 2000, four companies produced 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 60 percent of pigs, and 50 percent of chickens.)
- There are 5 breeds that make up almost all of the dairy herds in the US.
- 83 percent of US dairy cows are Holsteins.
- 60 percent of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds.
- 75 percent of pigs in the US come from only 3 main breeds.
- Over 60 percent of sheep come from only four breeds, and 40 percent are Suffolk-breed sheep.
- 99% of all turkeys raised in the U.S. are Broad-Breasted Whites, a single turkey breed specially developed to have a meaty breast.
Since the 1960s we have seen a drastic reduction of breed variety. Within the past 15 years 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. Sixty breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct in the past five years alone.
Why does that matter? If we are getting more for our money, why does that extinction of these more regional breeds really matter? Simple answer… long term breed health and bio diversity. It matters for our long term health.
We don’t know what the future holds. Mother Earth is always changing and we are always adapting These heritage livestock breeds serve as our genetic resource, our ability to breed new traits into existing stock. When heritage breeds become extinct, these unique genes are lost forever and limit our ability to adapt.
By limiting the breeds we raise commercially, we have narrowed our options, and continue to do so at a quickening pace. Poetically, our genetic heritage was once rich in texture and color, a tapestry full of shading and nuance. Now it looks pretty plain.
Heritage breeds evolved as hardy pasture animals and so are well suited to the burgeoning grass-fed farming model. These animals can thrive without temperature-controlled buildings and the antibiotics administered to factory farmed breeds. In raising diverse heritage livestock breeds, farmers not only maintain variety within our stock populations, they also help to preserve this valuable genetic legacy, keeping our palette open to future adaptation.