The Importance of Heritage Breeds
Preserving a little piece of old fashioned American Farming
What are heritage breeds?
There is no official global definition or certification for “heritage” animals, but heritage breeds are historic breeds that have been around for decades or even hundreds of years. They are a part of our heritage, and they retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to disease and parasites.
Why Heritage Breeds?
We only raise heritage livestock in order to help preserve historic and rare breeds that are now threatened with extinction. Our farm is home to various heritage breeds which are hardier, better adapted to our climate, and they can withstand the rigors of living outside in their natural environment. While they may be slower maturing their flavor, meat characteristics, and cooking qualities are far superior to the more popular commercial breeds.
Raising heritage breeds also helps to preserve a little piece of old fashioned American farming, history and food traditions. It also encourages consumers, breeders, and hatcheries to buy and breed more of the heritage breeding stock which reduces the demand for the hybrid or genetically raised birds, like the Broad Breasted White Turkey or Cornish Cross Fryers. These breeds cannot breed naturally and were bred for fast commercial production.
Threatened with Extinction
Many heritage livestock breeds are threatened with extinction because modern agriculture and food production favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in intensively controlled environments. This results in a loss of genetic diversity, and the industrial breeds are less tolerant to disease, parasites, and climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) heritage livestock breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate all across the world.
Why YOU should be concerned
Heritage breeds are being replaced by their commercial counterparts who are faster growing and can withstand confinement. This seriously reduces genetic diversity. Why is this important? As an example; in Ireland in the 1840s they used one potato variety, and the entire crop was lost to disease. This lead to the great famine, and nearly 1 million died from starvation. In 2006 thousands of dairy cattle died in California because the breed being raised was not suited to the climate and couldn’t withstand the heat.
A great article to read can be found here.
How you can help
Try to buy from farmers that raise heritage breeds. By supporting small family farms dedicated to preserving heritage breeds you are helping to make a difference in our environment, local economy, saving a species, and helping to maintain a natural and balanced food chain.
Heritage Breeds vs Commercial Breeds
There is a vast and distinct difference between commercial and heritage breeds not only in the meat qualities but also in their ability to live a normal life.
Commercial hog breeds can withstand confinement, produce large litters, and mature at a much faster pace than heritage hog breeds. Commercial hogs don’t suffer the same health problems as commercial poultry breeds, and the biggest difference between commercial hogs and heritage hogs is noticed at the dinner table. Commercial hogs produce very lean meat which is dry, colorless, and tasteless, but heritage hog breeds produce wonderfully flavorful pork which is moist, tender, and truly a divine eating experience.
The biggest differences are in the poultry world…Commercial poultry breeds are unable to mate naturally, they cannot fly or roost high to protect themselves from predators, they cannot run fast, and they don’t have the same instinctual drive to forage for their food.
Commercial poultry breeds were developed for fast growth which often compromises the health and well-being of the animal being raised. For instance the Cornish Cross Fryer, which is typically what is supplied to the supermarkets and raised by most farms, is a breed that has been developed to mature within 6-10 weeks whereas old world heritage breeds take 6 months or longer. The Cornish Cross Fryer develops so rapidly that in some birds their internal organs and legs cannot keep up with the growth of their muscle. Broad Breasted turkeys, along with the Cornish Cross, have also been bred to develop larger breast meat to satisfy the consumers demand for more white meat. In both breeds it is common for the birds’ legs to break under their weight, or to suffer a slow painful death due to organ failure or cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
As if these birds didn’t produce unnatural amounts of breast meat already most commercial birds are injected with a saline solution to fill out the breasts even further. Heritage breeds produce smaller, narrower breasts and more dark meat, but their flavor is unparalleled to commercial breeds. Many people are surprised when they see the differences between a commercial bird and a pasture raised heritage one. Commercial birds produce large carcasses which are thick and plump whereas heritage birds are smaller and their breastbones are very prominent – they are not covered by a thick layer of meat.
From a small farm standpoint these birds are awful to raise because they do not actively forage for food. Instead they literally sit in front of the feeder all day long and defecate in the same spot. They typically only get up to get water or stretch their legs, and they are a sad and pathetic animal. They do not play with one another, and very seldom do they scratch and peck the ground in search of bugs or seeds. We raised a couple dozen of these birds a few years ago, and we will never raise them again.