If you were to visit a large commercial farm, you might leave under the impression that all chickens, cows and pigs look exactly the same. But livestock isn’t limited to those familiar breeds. In fact, heritage breeds represent a glimpse into the rich diversity and history of farm animals.
“Heritage breeds are historic breeds that are more closely that more closely resemble the livestock and poultry that we have raised throughout history,” said Ryan Walker, communications manager at the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting threatened and endangered livestock breeds based in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “Heritage breeds come in all sorts of colors and shapes and sizes. The diversity is appealing to a lot of people.”
Heritage breeds can be a great choice for small farms and homesteaders, but they come with some costs. Here is what you need to know about heritage breeds and why you might want to add them to your homestead.
The advantages and challenges of heritage breeds
Heritage breeds can be especially advantageous for small farms and homesteads. Commercial livestock has been carefully bred to be fast-growing and meaty, often at the expense of instincts like mothering and natural mating.
Heritage breeds tend to be more independent and resilient than their commercial counterparts. According to Walker, heritage breeds retain more of the characteristics of their wild ancestors, which can be advantageous for homesteaders. Because the breeds adapted to a time before commercial farming, they are more likely to graze freely. Heritage breeds are more likely to retain their maternal or brooding instinct. Also, their “temperament can be preferable to small farmers,” Walker said.
If you are raising animals for meat, heritage breeds also taste better.
“One of the biggest reasons we chose to raise heritage breeds is the quality of the meat,” Wesley Hunter, owner of Providence Farm in Seymour, Missouri, said. Hunter raises a number of heritage breed poultry, including ducks, turkeys, geese and guinea fowl. “It is more flavorful with a better texture.”
Heritage breeds also tend to have fewer health issues than commercial breeds. With respect to chickens, Hunter said that “because they’re slower growing, and they have what should be a normal body phenotype, they are not subject to the health problems that the faster-growing hybrid meat chickens are.”