Anna Lebedeva writing on homesteading animals

A third of historic American breeds known for their hardiness, foraging ability, longevity, and resistance to diseases has been forgotten for the sake of super-productive livestock and higher profits. The Holstein cow accounts for over 90% of the U.S. national dairy stock with the entire breed originating from only 20 animal selected for their high milk yields. Only five industrial chicken breeds feed the entire nation today compared to 60 that had been raised in the country before the World War II. Choosing heritage chickens, turkeys, cattle, and swine for your homestead means going against intensive farming, maintaining biodiversity, providing healthier food for your family and community and, often, getting a better price for your produce. The growing movement among American farmers in support of historic American breeds means that it is a great time to start introducing them to your homestead.

What is your plan?

When you are choosing heritage breeds, you have to be clear about your goal. Do you want to be a breeder? Do you want to raise animals to feed your family? Do you want to sell produce to the community? Visit local fairs, farmers markets and talk to the producers there to understand various historic breeds and decide which ones appeal to you. Do you like chickens, ducks, rabbits, sheep, goats or pigs?

How much space do you have?

Some animals require more space than others. If you don’t have a lot of space, you might want to focus on chickens. Such breeds as the La Flèche and Crèvecoeur that are good for both eggs and meat production. If you have a pond on your land, you might want to go for the Magpie duck, which is a great forager, produce almost 300 eggs yearly and are known for their gourmet quality. If you have plenty of grazing space, sheep, goats or pigs might be the right choice for you.

How much can you invest?

Some rare heritage breeds can be expensive. As they might not be readily available, you will have to travel and add the cost of transportation to your expenses. Inquire about the breeding protocol as in some cases you might also have to pay a veterinarian for artificial insemination. If you are a complete beginner, start with more common breeds. You can learn the ropes of goat keeping with the Nubian that cost less and are easier to manage. Shop around and talk to different breeders to compare prices and learn about the costs involved.

What is the right breed for you?

Once you have decided what type of animals suit you and your space, you can start thinking about the breeds. The climate in your region and landscape play an important role in choosing a breed. The Livestock Conservancy website has detailed descriptions of various heritage breeds as well as a breeder directory. Learn as much as you can about various breeds, visit breeders clubs and associations, talk to experienced farmers who can help you to choose the right breeds to start with. There are many online forums that will help you to find answers to your questions. Check out such groups as Rare Heritage Turkey, Rare Chicken Breeds Sell/Swap.

Are you thinking outside the box?

Do not forget, there are many historic breeds that can provide you an additional source of income. Many small farmers choose the Shropshire sheep breed not only for its excellent milk but also for quality wool. If you are getting a flock of chickens for eggs and meat production you might want to consider breeding some ornamental chickens as well. The Modern Game, Cochin or Sultan are popular breeds and easy to sell.

Image: ©iStock.com/mtreasure

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