While dual-purpose livestock breeds are not exactly commonplace anymore, they are frequently favorites on many small farms and homesteads. Chicken breeds that are suitable for both meat and eggs are probably the most common, followed by cattle that can serve meat, milk, and draft purposes alike. But there are also sheep suitable for fiber, meat, and dairy, as well as horses suited to both draft and saddle (or saddle and fiber, in the case of the unique Curly Horse breed).
Whatever type of livestock you are most interested in, you may be wondering if you can really have it all. After all, weren’t modern livestock breeds specialized for a reason?
Let’s find out.
- Versatility. The most obvious reason for selecting dual-purpose livestock breeds.
- Heritage genetics. Dual-purpose animals of all species were frequently the norm until the Industrial Revolution. This means that many dual-purpose animals are heritage breeds. Heritage breeds come with many advantages, such as health and hardiness.
- Health. Because dual-purpose animals are by definition bred for balance rather than pushed to their biological limits, they are generally healthier and sounder. They are typically less prone to parasites, metabolic disorders, and a whole host of other ailments that plague high-production livestock.
- Longevity. What they lack in short-term production ability, dual-purpose animals can make up to some degree with their long working lifespans. A dual-purpose cow can continue to calve and milk well into her teens, often even past age 20. Dual-purpose chickens will frequently continue to lay regularly well beyond the one year that is expected of high-production egg breeds.
- Low-input traits. Specialized livestock tend to consume a great deal of feed in the process of achieving their renowned production levels. Most dual-purpose breeds do well in a pasture-based setting, perhaps with moderate amounts of grain depending on the species (e.g., chickens), time of year, and stage of reproduction.
- Quality. The high production levels typically come at a quality cost. Specialized dairy cattle, for instance, output a great deal of milk consisting mostly of water. Dual-purpose cattle produce less milk and beef, but usually make up for it in superior flavor and nutritional content.
- Streams of income. Raising animals that can perform more than one task means that you can have more than one stream of income from the same herd or flock on the same land base.
- Limited availability. Depending on your geographical location and on the specific breed you decide on, you may have a hard time finding animals to purchase. Specialized breeds are usually easier to come by in many regions.
- Slow growth and maturity. Dual-purpose animals almost always grow more slowly than their specialized counterparts. This is most obviously a drawback in the case of meat animals, but it also affects the age at which livestock will begin breeding, laying, milking, or starting draft work.
- Lower production levels. Not surprisingly, specialized breeds are more productive in their field than dual-purpose breeds. Note the remarkable egg-laying capacity of the Leghorn and the unrivaled milking prowess of the Holstein.
- Poor suitability for commodity marketing. Commercial fleece must be white, while dual-purpose sheep often come in varied colors. Commercial beef steers must be polled and either black or red, perhaps with a white face, while dual-purpose cattle are often naturally horned, colorful, and possibly even shaggy. In short, dual-purpose livestock perform poorly in conventional production systems.
- An unfamiliar product. Some dual-purpose animals have characteristics that can be difficult to sell even when direct marketing. A dual-purpose chicken raised for the table tends to have very dark flesh and relatively little breast meat, while milk from dual-purpose cows often has a golden color that, while typically indicative of high nutritional value, can be startling to the modern consumer.
- Slow-cooking requirements. Meat from dual-purpose breeds typically requires longer cooking times at a lower heat to avoid a dry, tough result due to the lower levels of fat. (This does not affect eggs or milk from dual-purpose animals.)
In short, dual-purpose livestock offer great advantages in health, longevity, and quality production with less feed. However, they cannot compete with specialized breeds in the realms of rapid growth and maximum production.
For those who are raising animals just to feed their families, dual-purpose livestock frequently make a great deal of sense, as massive outputs of anything are less than desirable, while the added health benefits for both animals and people are a huge plus. However, be aware that the characteristics of the meat or milk may not be quite what you are used to.
For those who are raising animals for a living, it can be a little trickier. Dual-purpose animals simply don’t fit well into commodity production systems. With direct marketing, it largely comes down to the expectations of your customers. While colorful wool may be welcomed, colorful milk may not. Likewise, not everyone prefers the flavor of a dual-purpose chicken over the tenderness and ample breast meat of a specialized broiler.
So are dual-purpose animals right for you? Take stock of your unique circumstances—it all depends on what you expect from your livestock.
Getting Started with Livestock Part 4: Breed
This post will help you set realistic expectations for your livestock and research the best breed for your needs.
Heritage Livestock Breeds Comparison Charts
Characteristics of many dual-purpose livestock breeds of all species.
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
This book will walk you through the process of defining your needs, and then introduce you to 40 cattle breeds, both specialized and dual-purpose. Learn more.