What are Heritage Livestock Breeds?

What are Heritage Livestock Breeds?Unlike terms such as organic and grassfed, heritage has no official definition when applied to livestock breeds. The main idea implied by the term is that these breeds have been around for a while, before the days of industrial agriculture. In a sense, they are walking pieces of history.

Made to Work

In general, heritage breeds were adapted to very specific environments. Instead of being one-size-fits all commodities, these animals developed distinctive traits that enabled them to thrive in unusual conditions, such as rough terrain, inclement weather, or poor-quality forage. Often they were raised with minimal supervision, which meant that they would be culled naturally and develop as low-maintenance landraces.

However, heritage breeds were still expected by their human owners to perform in spite of the difficulties they faced. Their tasks varied, but they had to thrive in their unique environments and provide farmers with food, clothing, and transportation. Often they served multiple purposes—heritage chickens were used for both meat and eggs, while heritage cattle could provide beef, milk, and draft power. Of course, the uses to which heritage breeds were put depended on the lifestyle of their owners.

This long history of adaptation and hard work led to the development of many other useful characteristics:

  • Structural soundness.
  • Good immune systems.
  • Ability to thrive in low-input systems.
  • Intelligence.
  • Longevity.
  • Ability to reproduce with minimal intervention.

Also, many of these breeds offer top-notch food and fiber, as well as distinctive looks not found in commodity breeds.

Industrial Demands

With so much going for them, why aren’t heritage breeds more popular? There are two main reasons:

  • Production.
  • Uniformity.

What are Heritage Livestock Breeds?Heritage breeds can rarely exceed their commercial counterparts in production. A Rhode Island Red hen will never lay as many eggs in her lifetime as a White Leghorn, and a Milking Devon will never produce as many gallons of milk as a Holstein. Also, heritage meat animals typically grow more slowly than commercial breeds.

Furthermore, commodity agriculture is very standardized. Anything abnormal is typically penalized. For example, the steer that brings the most money at the sale barn is going to be hornless and solid black or red. A dun-colored Highland calf with a shaggy coat and the potential for long horns is going to sell at a heavy discount.

Is a Heritage Breed Right For You?

In short, then, only you can decide whether or not a heritage breed is a good fit for you. If quality food and low maintenance requirements are your aim, look no further. On the other hand, if you plan to market through more conventional channels, you may find that a standard breed is a safer bet.

Helpful Resources

An Introduction to Heritage BreedsAn Introduction to Heritage Breeds
Excellent beginner’s guide to understanding and raising heritage breeds. Read our full review.

Heritage Livestock Breeds Comparison Charts
Great resource for comparing heritage breeds of all types at a glance.

Choosing a Breed of CattleChoosing a Breed of Cattle
Is a heritage cattle breed right for you? This book will walk you through the process of deciding, and then introduce you to 40 cattle breeds, heritage and modern. Free sample pages are available here.

Cattle BreedsCattle Breeds
Our own guide to both heritage and standard breeds.

Storey’s Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North AmericaStorey's Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America
Great horse encyclopedia including both heritage and standard breeds. Read our full review.

Horse BreedsHorse & Donkey Breeds
Our own guide to both heritage and standard breeds.

Goat BreedsGoat Breeds
Our own guide to both heritage and standard breeds.

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds
Our own guide to both heritage and standard breeds.