Heritage Livestock: What Are Heritage Breeds?

Heritage livestock breeds are breeds that you could imagine on your great-grandparent's farm.  In fact, heritage breeds would have been the breeds that you would have encountered on farms in the late 1800's. Keep reading to learn more about heritage livestock.

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What are heritage livestock breeds?

Heritage livestock breeds were developed long before the animal breeding technology that we have today was developed.  These breeds were developed using selective breeding and natural mating.

In other words, if you knew that your cow produced a large amount of milk and your neighbor's bull had offspring that produced lots of butterfat in their milk, then you could breed the two to hopefully create a cow that would produce a lot of milk with a high butterfat content.

Today it's so easy for breeders to manipulate the genetics of breeds using methods like artificial insemination.

Artificial insemination is a wonderful tool to create higher producing animals.  However, animals that are intensively bred often lose some of the other qualities that are also desirable.

Today, livestock breeds that are popular are extremely efficient and can produce mass amounts of meat, milk, eggs, fiber or whatever they are being raised for.

That's excellent news when we think about the fact that the world's population is rapidly increasing and we need to feed more people than ever before.

But there's a downside to these extremely productive breeds as well.

Many of these modern breeds have lost the ability to survive without human intervention.

Most modern breeds of livestock cannot forage well enough to thrive where all livestock species used to forage to meet the majority of their nutritional needs.

Some of these breeds are so dependent on humans that they cannot reproduce on their own anymore.  For example, 99% of all turkeys that are sold in grocery stores were bred using artificial insemination.

Turkeys commercially bred for meat have lost the ability to reproduce on their own because they were so heavily bred to grow huge amounts of muscling in very small amounts of time.

This is where the heritage livestock breeds excel.

‚ÄčThese breeds were selectively bred, just like modern breeds.¬† However, they were naturally mated and the breeding selection was much slower, which allowed them to adapt to their environment.

What are the benefits of heritage livestock breeds?

Heritage livestock breeds wouldn't be profitable in large commercial operations that are common today.

They would not be able to keep up with the rapid growth and production rates of modern breeds.

So why keep them around?

There are many benefits to keeping heritage livestock breeds!

For one thing, what would we do if all of our livestock breeds relied on artificial mating methods in order to reproduce?

This has become such a problem in the poultry industry that breeders are looking into adding heritage breeds back into their production to allow natural mating to take place.

Heritage livestock breeds are well adapted to their environments in which the breed was developed.

Modern livestock breeds are often micromanaged and live in barns or other facilities that keep their exposure to the elements limited.

This means if you tried to raise them at home on your pastures, they may not have the same amount of productivity because the breed isn't suited to be in that environment.

‚ÄčFor example, let's look at one of the most popular breeds of dairy cattle, the Holstein.

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Another benefit of heritage livestock breeds is the resistance to disease and pests that they have.

‚ÄčAgain, these breeds were developed slowly over time for certain areas.¬† Their bodies were able to adapt to diseases and pests in the area that could cause illness.

Heritage livestock breeds are simply more self-sufficient.

These breeds can forage well enough that they can remain productive with little or no human intervention.  They live longer than the modern breeds and can mate naturally on their own.

Heritage breeds often have better maternal instincts than modern breeds.  This is a definite plus for people raising pigs for meat because modern pig breeds aren't always the best mothers.

‚ÄčRead more about pig pregnancy and the modern breeds of pigs.

Defining Heritage Livestock Breeds

Each species has a slightly different definition of what makes a breed a heritage breed.  In the United States, one of the authorities of heritage livestock breeds is the Livestock Conservancy.

‚ÄčHeritage livestock breeds are pure breeds that have long histories of development and are endangered breeds.¬† These breeds are more well-rounded individually than modern breeds that have intense production.

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These are the definitions of heritage breeds in the United States according to the Livestock Conservancy:

Heritage Turkeys

Turkeys that are bred commercially are bred using artificial insemination.

Heritage turkey breeds must be able to mate naturally (and be successful >70% of the time).

Heritage turkeys have longer lifespans than modern turkey breeds.  Hens should remain productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms should remain productive for 3-5 years.

Heritage turkeys grow slower than modern breeds.  This gives their skeleton and organs time to grow as well, which means fewer growth issues than modern turkey breeds.

‚ÄčHeritage turkeys should reach market weight at about 28 weeks of age.

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Breeds of heritage turkeys

-Beltsville Small White
-Black
-Bourbon Red
-Bronze
-Chocolate
-Jersey Buff
-Lavender
-Midget White
-Narragansett
-Royal Palm
-Slate
-White Holland


‚ÄčFind out more information about turkey breeds from the American Poultry Association.

Heritage Chickens

Heritage chickens must be a standard breed that is defined by the American Poultry Association.  They must mate naturally.  The chickens must be productive for long periods of time.

Hens should be productive for 5-7 years and roosters should be for 3-5 years.  Heritage chickens have a slower growth rate than their modern relatives.

Modern breeds reach market weight in as little as 5 weeks; heritage breeds require at least 16 weeks.  Similar to turkeys, the slower growth rate gives the bird's body time to catch up, resulting in fewer growth problems.

There are over 50 recognized heritage breeds of chickens in the United States.  Breeds referred to as 'heirloom', 'antique', 'old-fashioned' and 'old-timey' are accepted as meaning heritage breeds.

Breeds of heritage chickens

-Ancona
-Araucana
-Cochin
-Cornish
-Dominique
-Faverolle
-Jersey Giant
-Lakenvelder
-Minorca
-Plymouth Rock
-Rhode Island White
-Spanish
-Sultan


‚ÄčYou can find out more about the breeds of chickens from the American Poultry Association.

Heritage Cattle

Cattle breeds that are considered heritage breeds must be a true, genetic breed that is endangered.  The breed must have been in the U.S. and considered a breed prior to 1925.  If the breed was developed after 1925, it is not a heritage breed. Heritage cattle are selected and bred for longevity, fertility and their productivity.

‚ÄčWhen marketing heritage cattle goods, the goods can fall under the following categories: heritage beef, heritage milk or heritage milk products.

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Heritage Pigs

Heritage swine must be a true genetic breed that is both purebred and endangered.

Similar to cattle, heritage swine breeds must have been established before 1925 to be considered a heritage breed.  Heritage pig products can be sold as either Heritage Swine or Heritage Pork Products.

These breeds of pig are well suited for life on pasture and have excellent foraging abilities.  They can survive and thrive on both pasture and wooded areas.

The intensive foraging of these breeds results in a wide-ranging diet.  This diverse diet creates a very flavorful meat, which is growing in popularity at restaurants.

Heritage breeds of swine also have better mothering abilities than their modern cousins.

Modern breeds often have issues with poor mothers.  It's common for mothers of modern pig breeds to lay on their young and suffocate them.  Read about what to expect with pig pregnancy.

Breeds of heritage pigs

Click on the links to go to the breed association's page.

-Choctaw
-Gloucestershire Old Spots
-Guinea Hog
-Hereford
-Large Black
-Meishan
-Mulefoot
-Ossabaw Island
-Red Wattle
-Saddleback
‚Äč-Tamworth

Heritage Sheep

Currently about 75% of the sheep population that is registered in the U.S. belongs to four different breeds.

The four most popular breeds are the Suffolk (alone accounts for 40% of registered sheep), the Dorset, the Hampshire and the Rambouillet.

These modern commercial breeds dominate the market.  The remaining 25% of sheep registered is scattered over 42 other breeds of sheep.

Heritage sheep breeds make excellent dual purpose sheep that can be harvested for both meat and wool.  They have an increased resistance to parasites and disease.  Learn more about internal parasites and FAMACHA scoring.

Modern breeds are seasonal breeders, while many heritage sheep are truly nonseasonal and can breed year-round.  They are highly adaptable to various climates, like many of the other heritage species.

They also have strong maternal instincts when compared to modern sheep breeds.

Breeds of heritage sheep

Click on the links to go to the breed association's website.

-Barbados Blackbelly
-Black Welsh Mountain

-Clun Forest
-Cotswold
-Dorest Horn
-Florida Cracker
-Gulf Coast Native
-Hog Island
-Jacob-American
-Karakul-American
-Leicester Longwool
-Lincoln
-Navajo-Churro
-Oxford
-Romeldale/CVM
-Santa Cruz
-Shetland
-Shropshire
-Southdown
-St. Croix
-Tunis
-‚ÄčWiltshire Horn

Heritage Goats

Goats were the first livestock species that were domesticated.  Domestic goats have been seen in artwork that dates as far back as 12,000 years ago.

It's safe to say that much of that time goats have been selectively bred, resulting in a hardy livestock species that can thrive on rough vegetation and still provide ample supplies of meat, milk or fiber.

‚ÄčInterested in raising goats? Read the beginner's guide to raising goats.¬† Not sure if you're ready for goats? Check out my easy five minute lavender goat's milk soap recipe.

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Breeds of heritage goats

Click on the links to go to the breed association's website.

-Arapawa
-Golden Guernsey
-Myotonic/ Fainting
-Oberhasli
-San Clemente Island
‚Äč-Spanish

The Future of Heritage Livestock Breeds

It's important that heritage livestock breeds are conserved.  These breeds have many genetic traits that our modern breeds have lost due to intensive selective breeding. Heritage breeds may be the key to reversing some of the desirable trait loss that some modern breeds experience.

‚ÄčHeritage breeds are also the perfect solution for families that want to become more self-sufficient.¬† These breeds are hardy and well-rounded.¬† Many of the breeds are dual-purpose animals, which adds even more value to families that are looking for livestock to add to their farm or homestead.
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‚ÄčIf you haven't yet, click here to grab your FREE copy of the Livestock Planning Guide and get instant access to my foolproof method for planning for livestock so you can start raising animals for delicious, homegrown meat, eggs and dairy!

Heritage Livestock, Livestock Planning Guide

You might also be interested in these other popular livestock posts:

Do you raise heritage livestock breeds? Why do you prefer them over modern breeds?  Let me know below!

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