Most livestock these days are bred for the certain production attributes—for example higher egg production or more usable meat—but there is a cost when taken to the extreme. The rise of industrial agriculture has signaled the decline of genetic diversity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), just 14 species make up 90 percent of our global food supply. In the U.S., more than 90% of our dairy comes from Holstein cows, more than half of the hog breeds in use just 50 years ago are now extinct, and just five industrial breeds of chicken supply nearly all of our meat and eggs.
In response to this trend, the movement to rescue and raise heritage breed livestock has grown. While there is no official definition for “heritage breeds,” they are generally regarded as animals that have unique genetic traits and are usually raised on small, family farms. Like heirloom plants and vegetables, the livestock are raised and bred to maintain their genetic diversity.
It has been years since Rodale Institute has had livestock on the farm and we wanted to do our part to help preserve the valuable heritage breeds disappearing every day. After welcoming our neighbor’s dairy cattle to pasture on our land and a small flock of chickens last year, we added three additional breeds of chickens and two breeds of hogs to the farm this spring.
More than 70 pullet chicks arrived at Rodale Institute and, in just a few months, will mature enough to begin laying. We selected breeds all native to North America: Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and New Hampshire Reds. By mid-July, we should also be adding an Australian breed to the mix: Australorps.
With the completion of the movable chicken tractor, the birds will be moved every 10-15 days onto new patches of land around the farm. The coop door will always be open so they will be able to wander about the grass, then roost and brood in the coop. The chickens are pasture-based but are also supplemented with organic grain from Panorama Natural Feeds in Oley, PA, owned by Vernon Burkholder.
Regulations from the USDA require 2-2.5 square feet of indoor space per bird if they have access to free range. Andy Dohner, livestock handler and landscape technician, likes to double that space for each chicken, so the tractor (and the outdoor space used) is quite a bit larger than regulation size.
The Institute farm is now home to Large Black/Old Spot mixes and Old Spots hogs. The mix breeds are penned inside a movable fence that allows the handlers to relocate the pig enclosure whenever most of the ground has been dug up. Unlike most conventional hogs, this breed does not root up ground as much as other breeds. Since the hogs’ arrival, their living area is still almost completely covered in grass. Andy’s fence of choice for the hogs (and chickens) is Premiere Netting, which is “by far the most superior [fencing] out there,” says Andy.
The Old Spots are being kept in a springhouse on the farm, separate from the others. All of the pigs are pasture-based, but are also fed grain once a day and are given extra vegetable scraps from the ASC gardens regularly. The Large Black/Old Spot hogs are being raised until they’re ready to butcher for meat, while the Old Spots will be bred.
In the 1990s Old Spots were practically extinct and, even now, there are less than 200 breeding hogs in the U.S. according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Both Large Blacks and Old Spots are listed as critical on the endangered heritage breeds list.
By early summer, Rodale Institute will be adding Nigerian Dwarf goats to the menagerie. We purchased the goats locally from TukSwitt Farm located in Bucks County, PA. They will initially be kept in the barn where the chickens started (before the completion of the chicken tractor), but will soon after be out on pasture where they can consume weeds voraciously.
Considered rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, our goats will be raised for breeding stock and as milkers. Milk from a Nigerian Dwarf goat is higher in protein and butterfat than other dairy goat breeds. It has a sweeter taste and can be made into excellent cheeses.