Before I get into the bulk of the post, I want to say right now that if you are too excited about the pictures of cute and crazy looking farm animals, feel free to scroll to the bottom first and check them out. I promise I won’t be too offended. I also promise these varieties will be like nothing you’ve ever seen. Picture chickens with mohawks, afros, beards, and five foot long tails. Now for my actual words (and a few nice pictures mixed in). Though this post got pretty long, I think it is a very informative, comprehensive look at livestock breeds and the important differences between heritage and modern ones.
As we saw in my last post, a drive for high yields in farming can force us to sacrifice quality: flavor, nutrition, and environmental sustainability. But when looking at farming livestock, it’s important to realize that the drive for high yield breeds also becomes an ethical issue. When livestock are bred for quick growth and weight gain above all else, the health and happiness of the animals can be sacrificed. Common breeds such as the Cornish Cross (a chicken) or Broad-Breasted White (a turkey) grow muscles and fat so quickly that their bones, organs, and other systems can’t really keep up. As a result, 75% of these chickens on industrial farms will have “some degree of walking impairment” (Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer). Many will suffer from immune, breathing, and heart problems.
These animals are almost always the product of artificial insemination and indeed most conventionally raised turkeys have breasts so large (up to 70% of their body weight) that they are physically unable to mate. Basically, these animals have been so highly bred for our purposes that they can’t do something so inherently important to their functionality as having sex. It is speculated that the Broad-breasted White would go extinct in a single generation were it not for our artificial insemination. There is clearly something wrong with this situation.
Prior to our current industrialization of animal husbandry, animal breeds were developed pretty differently. Sure, breeds were crossed to bring out desirable characteristics that would serve our purposes like high productivity. But as these animals spread to different places and were allowed to mate on their own, they adapted to the climate and geography of the area they lived. Many were named for their place of origin: the Appenzeller chicken from the Appenzell region of Sweden, the Scottish Blackface sheep, or the Ossabaw island pig from an island off the coast of Georgia.
No doubt these animals were actually able to have sex and knew how to raise their own offspring. These animals were far closer to their wild counterparts both anatomically and behaviorally than a highly bred modern variety like the Broad-Breasted White. The process that brought these breeds into being was closer to good old natural selection. From this long, slow process comes a population of animals that have a wider range of characteristics then what would typically be called a “breed.” The name for this group is a landrace.
An awesome example is the Hedemora chicken. This chicken is named for the town in Sweden from which it originated and has lived for at least 500 years. The small chicken has a thick layer of feathers and a reduced comb and wattle so that it is perfectly adapted to the cold. It can withstand sub-zero temperatures and will continue laying eggs as long as the temperature is above 5º F. As is true for many landraces, Hedemoras can be quite different in appearance. Some have feathered legs, some have very fine fur-like feathers, and there are many different colors present.
Nowadays, these types of animals might also be known as “Heritage” breeds. The Livestock Conservancy defines Heritage animals as “traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers.” They continue, using similar words as mine above:
“These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture.
Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self- sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.
Heritage animals once roamed the pastures of America’s pastoral landscape, but today these breeds are in danger of extinction. Modern agriculture has changed, causing many of these breeds to fall out of favor. Heritage breeds store a wealth of genetic resources that are important for our future and the future of our agricultural food system.”
And now we come back to the same principle that I hit upon in my earlier post: the importance of preserving this “genetic resource.” We can all help out on this front. Maybe if you start a backyard flock of chickens, you can get a diverse group of animals from a place like Just Struttin’ Farm which works to preserve these breeds. I got two of my hens, pretty Mille Fleur Leghorns from Just Struttin’. “Mille Fleur” describes the coloration of these hens and means “a thousand flowers.” This designation is fitting to describe the spots of white and black that cover these awesome birds.
A similar place is Green Fire Farms (who breed very rare chicken varieties and are often the first people in the US to raise certain breeds). In choosing these breeders, you help maintain the diversity of functional, historic breeds and support the hard work of the animals and people that created them. That choice is clearly much better for the animals and environment than buying an uninteresting, ubiquitous breed from a hatchery. These hatcheries often employ cruel practices like grinding day old male chicks alive since females are obviously the only ones useful for laying eggs.
Additionally, you can choose to buy a heritage turkey at thanksgiving (one that will probably taste better and actually had the ability to mate while it was alive). This action is more in the plant realm, but you can also find someone at the farmers market who grows cool heirloom varieties. One stand at the Menlo Park farmers market has things like Watermelon radishes (light green on the outside, bright pink on the inside as you’ll see in the picture below); Spanish Black radishes (a variety uncommon in the US that contains something called glucosinolate metabolites which supposedly help with organ function and extracts of the turnip are made into vitamin supplements); Borage (a little blue edible flower); Nopales (the young leaves of the prickly pear cactus which supposedly taste a little like green beans); and bright purple Wild Mountain Spinach also called Orach. These varieties are fascinating to learn about and eat for the first time. More importantly, buying them helps support the kind of farm that cares about this awesome diversity.
And now for the most fun part of the post: the animal pictures! I have spent the last week compiling a bunch of images of breeds that I find spectacular. They are not all necessarily heritage breeds or landraces. Though many are old and historic breeds, the point of the pictures is mainly to show the diversity of breeds. I strongly believe this diversity needs to be preserved in the coming years. I’ll start with the chickens because they are my favorite.
If you thought chickens were all white or brown and about the same size, now you know how diverse they are. Yes, they come in different colors, patterns, and sizes. But they can also have different combs, different egg colors, different body shapes and postures, beards, crests, ear tufts, and feathered legs. Now onto some pictures of other livestock:
And last but not least: the ducks!
I think it is easy to see that these diverse breeds of animals are by far preferable to those factory farmed Cornish Crosses and Broad-Breasted Whites. Their diverse characteristics, history, and functionality are worth maintaining.
As Barbara Kingsolver notes in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
“Our purpose for keeping heritage animals is food-system security, but also something else that is less self-serving: the dignity of each breed’s true and specific nature. A Gloucester Old Spots hog in the pasture, descended from her own ancient line, making choices, minute by minute, about rooting for grubs and nursing her young, contains in her life a sensate and intelligent “pigness.” It’s a state of animal grace that never even touches the sausages- on-hooves in an industrial pig lot.”
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
The Livestock Conservancy, an organization that works to preserve heritage livestock breeds: http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage
Green Fire Farms: http://greenfirefarms.com/