horses,  goats & sheep

Heirloom & heritage plants and animals

How many of you are familiar with heirloom plants and heritage animals?  How about landrace animals?

A heritage livestock breed is a breed that was traditionally raised by farmers before agriculture went large-scale.  These heritage breeds may or may not also be very old breeds.  Some date back just to the early 1900s, some back centuries.  Heritage breeds are typically adapted to local climates and to small and medium scale farming.  Heritage breeds tend to be more able to fend for themselves.  While the genetics within a heritage breed may sometimes be narrowed down by the process of developing the breed, the sheer variety of heritage breeds creates a lot of genetic diversity within a species.

Genetic diversity is the total number of genetic variations with a species.  For example, if a rabbit species only has white fur and pink skin, or a rabbit species can have white fur with pink skin OR brown fur with black skin, the species with white fur and pink skin only has less genetic diversity.
Genetic diversity serves as a way for populations to adapt to changing environments. With more variation, it is more likely that some individuals in a population will possess variations that are suited for the environment. Those individuals are more likely to survive to produce offspring. The population will continue for more generations because of the success of these individuals.  So to return to the example above, if you moved your 2 rabbit species to a cold climate, your species that came with different skin and fur colors might be able to adapt better to soaking up heat from the sun in winter, while your species that only had white fur and pink skin would have no options to select the best color for staying warm.

In heritage breeds, there are hundreds of different livestock breeds, each adapted for a particular use and location, and together, they create a reserve of many different genetic options to choose from in the future.

Landrace breeds overlap with heritage breeds.  A landrace is a domesticated regional animal type, usually heritage, and locally adapted.  Landraces are less formalized than breeds, and tend to have more genetic variety within their group than a formal breed.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) is the main organization working to save heritage breeds.  You can learn more about ALBC here.  ALBC works with cattle, donkeys, goats, horses, pigs, rabbits, and sheep.  Modern-day production farming practices have left the US dominated by a few breeds of each species.  For example, the dairy industry is dominated by Holstein genetics.  Beef production is typically black angus.  I’m sure you’ve seen the truck loads of white leghorn laying hens.  This means there is very little genetic diversity, and also means very little ability to adapt to new conditions, such as a disease outbreak.  The heritage animals are our stock of genetic diversity.  Additionally, many of these breeds are much more useful on the small farm or homestead.  For example, many of the heritage chickens are excellent foragers and mothers, and will feed themselves while raising up a new brood of future layers or eating birds.

At Oak Hill, we have buckeye chickens.  I chose this heritage breed for their foraging ability, their dual-purpose use of eggs and meat, and their excellent mothering skills.  The hens will go broody and hatch out a new generation.  They also have a rose comb, and tolerate cold well.  I have found that my buckeyes need no feed at all from spring until fall, happily foraging on ticks and other insects, seeds, and the occasional kitchen scraps.  The roosters are friendly with people, and kind and protective of their hens.

At Oak Hill, we also raise myotonic or fainting goats.  These are a landrace heritage breed that date back to the 1700s in the southeastern United States.  Beyond ALBC, there are several registries working to preserve fainting goats.  The 2 oldest are the  The International Fainting Goat Association and the Myotonic Goat Registry.  The American Fainting Goat Organization is more recent.  There are some other registries also. All the registries have information about their origins, history, focus and services.  

Just as livestock breeds can be heritage,  plants can be heirloom.  For plants, Seed Savers is doing excellent conservation work.  The same principles apply.  The fruits and vegetables you see in the grocery stores have been selected for commercial-scale farming.  They are selected to mature at the same time and handle shipping and storage well.  The old heirloom varieties are often too slow growing, or too different, or too delicate to be grown commercially.  However, for the small-scale farmer or homestead they offer a rich variety of colors and flavors and adaptations to local conditions.  Up to 100,000 plant species today are threatened with extinction.  These varieties are open-pollinated, meaning they need no human intervention to reproduce.  Open pollinated heirlooms also breed true. Modern hybrid and engineered seeds do not breed true.  If you save the seeds from a hybrid or engineered plant and plant them, the resulting offpsring will be very different from the parent, if they grow at all.  You can save the seeds from open pollinated heirlooms and plant them the next season.  Your garden becomes self-perpetuating.

I still remember the first fruit that opened my eyes to non-commercial varieties.  I read an article about Alpine strawberries.  These strawberries are too fragile to handle shipping to grocery stores.  The flavor is amazing.
Fantastic article on alpine strawberries, and a place to order your own!

Consider adding some heirloom plants and heritage animals to your backyard or small farm.  You can do your part to maintain the genetic reserves and enjoy the unique benefits of these varieties and species.

Copyright ©2016 Carrie Eastman.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration or American Veterinary Medical Association, and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always consult your veterinarian about any changes to your animal’s health program.

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