Saving Heritage Beef Breeds

The work of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy continues
By Marcia Passos Duffy

Humans raised cattle before they kept any other type of livestock; some historians date domestication of cattle to as early as 6,500 B.C. Early cattle were triple-purposed animals providing labor, milk and meat to their owners. From these "first" cattle came a plethora of different breeds, each suited to its own unique geography.

Today, just few major breeds dominate the livestock industry, which is comprised of 92.6 million head of cattle (as of January 2011), according to University of Missouri statistics. Of those cattle, 60 percent of the beef cattle in the U.S. are Angus, Hereford or Simmentals (83 percent of registered dairy cattle in the U.S. are Holsteins, and the remainder are Ayrshires, Guernsey, Jerseys and Brown Swiss).

The Randall breed is perhaps one of the most endangered breeds of beef cattle.
Courtesy of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

This winnowing down of genetic diversity - based on a selection of a handful of breeds for maximum production in a highly controlled factory farm environment - is a worrisome trend that gave rise to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) in 1977.

According to the ALBC, within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 at risk of becoming extinct. In the past five years alone, 60 breeds of domesticated cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct.

However, the nonprofit's mission is more than saving quaint historic breeds from extinction for display in a living museum: Saving historic breeds - cattle and other livestock - serves a serious purpose in the food industry, say its spokespersons. There is very real risk in any monoculture lacking genetic diversity of disease running rampant through a single breed, leaving the food industry in shambles. Heritage breeds have genetics - survival traits such as resistance to disease and parasites, climate adaptation, high fertility, maternal instincts and climate adaptation - that are simply not found in industrial stocks.

Vanishing old-time breeds

The ALBC was formed from a livestock breed search in 1976 by the Old Sturbridge Village and Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, which were seeking old-time breeds, primarily the milking Devon cow, for display during its bicentennial celebration.

Young milking Devon oxen.
Courtesy of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

"When they did a search, they realized there were not a lot of old-time breeds left," says Jennifer Kendall, spokesperson for the ALBC. A group of concerned professors, scientists and farmers got together to conduct a census of these breeds in the U.S. Undertaken before the Internet, this meant having to travel across the country with a Rolodex to find farmers and breeding groups, notes Kendall.

The census led to many discoveries on isolated farms and feral populations on islands. One of the ALBC's first rescues, December 1987, was a unique population of feral sheep on Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Southern California.

"Early in [the] ALBC's existence, 'discovery' was primary," says Kendall. "The window for doing discovery is closing very quickly ... we are actively trying to find populations before they are gone."

Since its inception, the organization has pinpointed 189 livestock breeds that are endangered. Of those, 18 are cattle breeds, with eight in the "critical" category of less than 200 animals in existence.

Randall cattle

The most dramatic cattle discovery was the Randall Cattle, says Alison Martin, research and technical program director for the ALBC. "The breed, on our critical list, is a triple-purpose animal, was popular in New England 150 years ago, and all but died out," she says.

According to the Randall Cattle Registry website, this American breed of cattle - with roots that go back to the Pilgrims which brought the breed to New England in the 1600s - was rescued from extinction in 1985 from the farm of Everett Randall of Sunderland, Vt. The breed was kept in isolation in Vermont for more than 80 years. When the farmer died, the cattle were destined for the slaughterhouse, but Cynthia Creech, owner of Artemis Farm in Jefferson City, Tenn., managed to intervene and purchased 15 Randall cows, heifers and bulls. Creech carefully bred her animals to bring the numbers up to 100. Later in the 1990s, three animals from that remaining herd were purchased by Phillip Lang, owner of Howland Homestead Farm of South Kent, Conn., who has since increased his herd to 38; Creech and Lang formed the Randall Cattle Registry (www.randallcattleregistry.org) in 2001. There are currently about 200 animals from Creech and Lang's farms, and 15 other farms have small herds of less than 10 animals each.

Randalls have been used for veal production on pasture, beef production and as family cows. Other direct descendents of the Vermont Randall herd are now populating Joe Henderson's Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Va., (www.randalllineback.org), which has been successfully raising free range Randall on pasturelands and selling its "rose veal" (calves stay in the fields with their dams until market day) to chefs across the country.

One 155-acre farm, Beau Chemin Preservation Farm (www.beaucheminfarm.com) in Waldoboro, Maine, has several heritage breeds, including one recently purchased Randall cow, which owners Wayne and JoAnn Myers intend to breed.

"We wanted to focus on the rarest of the heritage breeds," says JoAnn. "These heritage breeds are perfect for small farms ... and the Randall is perfect for this geographic area." She adds that her reason for selecting heritage breeds is to increase the genetic diversity in livestock: "And we're farming for the future ... the wave of small farms is just getting underway, and I believe heritage breeds can play a major role."

Benefits of heritage cattle breeds

The benefits of heritage breeds are their adaptability. "Heritage breeds work better than industrial breeds on small farms," Kendall says. Industrial breeds require feedlots, grain, concrete barns and other accoutrements that may be cost-prohibitive to a small farmer in the Northeast. "Heritage breeds are perfect for pasture, have a lower input and unique flavor," says Kendall.

"There's a long, rich history to these breeds that are better suited for a small farm environment," says Martin.

There are, however, some downsides that farmers need to consider before jumping into purchasing heritage breeds.

"Heritage breeds are smart," says Martin, which could require more secure fencing to prevent jumping and escape. They are also slow-growing, and the initial capital to purchase the breed is higher than for industrial stock. "This is offset by lower costs to keeping the animal - many of these breeds thrive outside," notes Martin.

The Randall breed, for example, is known for its "feral intelligence" and retains much of its natural instincts and self-reliance needed by wild bovines in order to survive. According to the Randall Cattle Registry, halter training can take longer not because they don't understand what's required of them, but because they need to overcome their natural self-preservation instincts to accept training. However, the breed is docile with normal handling, even bulls kept for breeding are calm and manageable when fully mature.

There is also the education component for consumers who purchase heritage meats raised on pasture - the meat tends to have very little intermuscular fat. "Consumers need to know that these meats need to be cooked either in a high heat for a short period of time, or low temperatures for a long time," says Martin.

Part of the ALBC's mission is to help farmers with this type of consumer education with outreach talks and targeted workshops about the health benefits of consuming heritage breed meats, and tips for cooking and serving these meats.

More breeds yet to be discovered?

While much of the "discovery" of new livestock breeds has been completed, the ABLC still holds out hope that new heritage livestock breeds are still out there.

"Maritime New England has not been fully explored yet," notes Martin. "There are lots of isolated islands that may be holding the next undiscovered heritage breed." She urges anyone who knows of any feral breeds of livestock to contact the ABLC.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.

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