Jacob sheep. Credit: Courtesy of the Livestock Conservancy

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.”

Credit: Courtesy of the Livestock Conservancy

The same goes for other kinds of livestock. “The main reason that I’ve always been attracted to them is because they are very hearty,” said Deborah Niemann, homesteader and blogger at The Thrifty Homesteader based in Cornell, Illinois, who keeps several heritage species, including pigs and turkeys.

While commercial livestock is generally bred for a single purpose, heritage breeds can have multiple uses. Heritage chickens, for example, can be used for both meat and eggs, while their commercial counterparts are usually bred for one use or the other.

The multi-use of heritage breeds can be advantageous to small farmers, especially in Maine. “One thing is we have a lot of small farms in Maine,” said Jo Ann Myers, owner of Beau Chemin Preservation Farm in Waldoboro, which is home to a number of rare heritage breeds. “Whether people are doing a homestead or raising for market, these diversely genetic multipurpose breeds are very useful.”

Because some heritage breeds are threatened or endangered, adding them to your homestead could be benefiting biodiversity and conservation. This also comes with a caveat: Walker recommended that inexperienced farmers choose animals that are not too endangered because if the population were to die off at the hands of an inexperienced farmer, it can threaten the species as a whole.

One of the primary challenges of choosing to raise heritage breeds is the extra cost of acquiring and rearing them. They can be more expensive than their commercial counterparts, and because they live longer they also require more feed.

“For one, they’re rare. Rarity adds to the cost for some of them,” Walker said. “Because they generally take longer to grow, that will take time, so you have to pay more for feed and care.”

The extended living times can also make them more vulnerable to predation. “Because they are slower growing, it can cause problems with predation,” Hunter said. “When they’re out in pasture that much longer, it’s that much more chance for predation.”

Credit: Courtesy of the Livestock Conservancy

Caring for sick or injured heritage breeds can also be an added challenge. “The biggest thing is vet care,” Niemann said. “Vets don’t usually know what to do with them because their experience is usually with commercial operations.” But, Niemann added, when compared to commercial breeds, heritage breeds “hardly ever get sick.”

How to choose a heritage breed

Most experts agree that chickens are a great starter animal for small farms or homesteads looking for their first heritage breed.

“I’d probably have to say chickens are the easiest. We often call them the gateway animal,” Walker said. “Compared to the other species, chickens are relatively cheap to obtain, and there is not a lot of infrastructure besides coop and basic fencing.”

Walker recommended Buckeye chickens, which he says are easy to raise and well-adapted to a wide variety of climates; Dominique, Java and Delaware are all also relatively easy to find, he said. Hunter also recommends the Barred Plymouth Rock and White Plymouth Rock chickens, which are prolific layers.

For Mainers, Myers said ducks may be preferable to chickens. “Ducks are really cold-hardy and lay well in the winter, which is kind of the opposite of chickens,” she said, and recommends the Cayuga, Buff or Khaki Campbell, which is the least endangered of the three and are prolific layers.

In terms of larger livestock, Walker said sheep and goats are generally easier than cows and pigs — plus, there is the potential added benefit of being able to profit from selling heritage wool.

Niemann raised Shetland sheep for 12 years for their colorful wool, which naturally comes in a wide range of colors. She said that though the commercial wool industry generally considers colored wool “worthless” because it cannot be dyed like white wool, artisans and spinners value the range in color and textures and will pay a premium for the product. Niemann is working with the Livestock Conservancy to launch the Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em campaign to connect fiber artists and heritage breeders.

Myers recommends wooly sheep, like Jacob or Karakul, for Mainers because they will stay warm in the cold.

Where to buy a heritage breed

For poultry, most hatcheries or feed stores will have some heritage breeds available. For larger animals or rarer breeds, the Livestock Conservancy has an online directory of breeders so you can search for the breeders that specialize in the animal you are looking for.

Credit: Courtesy of the Livestock Conservancy

Heritage breeds are a great fit for many farms and homesteads. While you are out shopping for your quirky, interesting and potentially rare livestock, Walker simply cautions that you start slowly.

“The main thing is going to be is making sure you don’t get in too quickly,” he said. “It is a really exciting thing when you get animals, but because these breeds are rare, we don’t want to see somebody who gets a lot of animals gets in over their head.”