Conserving Rare Livestock Breeds
by J.F. Pirro
Ben Machin remembers the conversation with his grandfather, Herbert Liddell. It was 2006, and Machin was visiting him in the nursing home. "We talked about his sheep, and not until then did I realize how important they were to him," he recalls.
Machin's uncle, Eddie, was to take responsibility for the family farm, Tamarack Farm in Greenwich, N.Y. Eddie was mainly interested in the herd of Ayrshires; the sheep were to be sold or slaughtered.
That would have abruptly halted what's now considered the nation's oldest continuously managed flock of Tunis, a breed with cinnamon-red faces and legs. The long-standing Tunis herd dated to the 1920s, and Machin couldn't let that heritage go.
In 2009, he moved the flock to Tamarack Vermont Sheep Farm (www.tamarackvermont.com
), a 40-acre operation in Corinth, Vt., that he shares with his fiancée, Grace Bowmer. Around the same time, he heard about the Swiss Village Farm (SVF) Foundation (http://svffoundation.org
) in Newport, R.I. He contacted the foundation, and then lent the research farm half his breeding Tunis ewes, those that weren't already too old.
In turn, Machin learned that SVF had breeding stock from his grandfather, who had sold some to Hawk Meadow Farm in Elizabethville, Pa. William Mende and Helen Kirby-Mende, owners of Hawk Meadow, discovered the foundation as they were leaving farming. Their liquidation coincided with SVF's interest in Tunis. The connection between the Mendes and SVF helped preserve the genetics from Machin's grandfather's herd. The semen, eggs and resulting embryos collected by SVF were passed on to Machin to perpetuate those genetics in his breeding flocks, a boon for a breed known for its mild, tender meat and fine wool.
"Like all sheep, Tunis were dramatically changing through all the showing and lack of commercial use," Machin says. "They were getting taller and having less and less production value."
In operation for 12 years, the foundation is home to a scientific effort to preserve forgotten livestock breeds and prevent the future loss of biodiversity on our farms. There's no other facility like it in the world, one that privately banks germplasm from rare breeds. The USDA has the National Animal Germplasm Program in Colorado, but it focuses on more common breeds, and almost all of its work is in semen collection. SVF focuses on embryo collection in much the same way a seed bank protects plant diversity and food security.
With help from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (www.livestockconservancy.org
) in Pittsboro, N.C., SVF searches the nation for breeders, independent farmers, zoos or conservation organizations with heritage breeds. SVF buys, borrows, leases or trades for herds or flocks of breeds it targets.
A typical intervention begins by building a herd of 30 females and eight to 10 males of any selected rare or endangered breed. A new herd remains in Newport for 12 to 18 months. The herd is quarantined for the first 30 days. After that, they're bred, and their semen and embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen--a process called cryopreservation--and chilled to minus 312 degrees, which scientists there say will allow them to be forever viable. The genetic seed material that remains in the farm's tanks is what director Peter Borden has called "a library for the future." The New York Times called it a "frozen ark."
After some 300 embryos and equal "straws" of semen are drawn, the animals are returned to owner farms or placed at other farms with interested, knowledgeable farmers who are typically set up with a mentor. Thus, SVF supports on-the-hoof conservation by reintroducing and returning animals to active flocks and herds.
"The stock is available," says Sarah C. Bowley, SVF's program and livestock manager. Bowley oversees the livestock, labs, veterinarians, educational outreach and public relations. "The breeds are back, and these animals aren't just showpieces anymore. What we've found is that there's a small culturally knit nucleus of small heritage breeders, and if someone already has one rare breed, they tend to have, or want, two or three rare breeds," she explains.
At SVF there have been Randall Lineback cows, a dual-purpose breed that originated in New England and is still used for dairy and beef production. There have also been endangered Ancient White Park cows, which originated in England. They are known for their fierce mothering instincts and foraging. The endangered Dominique chicken, which dates to early settlements in New England, is another breed SVF has worked with. They lay large brown eggs, an ideal option for small family farmers. Some new breeds that entered the ranks at SVF this past year include Spanish goats, Leicester Longwools and Red Poll cows.
SVF's Chip, a myotonic (or Tennessee fainting) goat, was the first proof that the embryonic transfer process works. The breed is known for involuntarily stiffening (or fainting) when startled. Bred on the farm, he was a frozen embryo later revived in the womb of a common Nubian goat. Born in May 2004, he's one of the few animals who has remained in Newport. Essentially, he's the farm's mascot, though modern monoculture agribusiness might consider him and his transitory ruminant neighbors misfits.
Why there's a need
As recently as 50 years ago, there were six major breeds of dairy cattle. Now there are Holsteins, which represent about 94 percent of the nation's milk supply. Since the 1930s, six of 15 notable swine breeds have died out. At the SVF Foundation, the theory is that only a scientifically engineered stockpile of heritage breed genetics--and willing small-scale farmers--can help. It's a unique alchemy of science and small farming.
American farmers were once proud of distinctive breeds--Black turkeys tasted different than another's Narragansetts. The Guernsey produced more yellow butterfat and milk, while the Devon yielded Devonshire cream. Belted Galloways and their tolerance for forage resulted in a tastier beef than today's common Angus.
There's no denying that most heritage breeds are not economically viable, but the foundation maintains that the heritage breeds are actually the foundation of agriculture, in that they hold the secret to agriculture's ability to adapt to change and/or disease, and they offer future food supply insurance. For example, Gulf Coast sheep are scientifically proven to be genetically resistant to certain internal parasites. Understanding their defense mechanisms could help solve that major global concern.
"We're losing resources," Bowley says. "We're losing one breed per month, and most of that loss is in developed countries. Our food chain is becoming more and more fragile."
On the production level, small-scale agriculture, like Machin's Tamarack Vermont Sheep Farm, is finding a way to better brand itself. In Rhode Island in particular, there's been a huge boom in the last five to 10 years of direct farm-to-consumer and restaurant sales, which Bowley calls an infrastructure for heritage breed production.
The trend toward smaller-scale, more humane farming works better with heritage breeds, though SVF isn't blinded by pie-in-the-sky fantasy. "We recognize that it will never allow a farmer to compete at market, yet there is still some payoff," Bowley says.
Certainly it's a labor of love, especially in the beginning, but besides the cultural value of connecting to history and perhaps to your own region, as farmers become better and better at marketing and direct sales, they're better able to convince consumers to pay higher prices at market. "It's not just a green movement anymore," Bowley says. "It's the way agriculture is going--regionalization--and heritage breeds fit all of the models."
SVF's message to farmers: Explore your options. Even if you have a commercial operation, try a heritage breed, even if it's for marketing purposes and not for boosting your bottom line. It can show that you're interested and aware.
"We're not suggesting an overhaul of our agricultural systems, but losing one heritage breed per month is an alarming trend," Bowley says. "It took 1,200 or 1,500 years to domesticate these herds, and then far less to lose them."
For consumers, whose tastes can change, Bowley says it just makes sense if you're increasingly interested in knowing your farmer and your food supply. The message to the public: There are other types of farm animals. "We remind them of the Irish potato famine, and that we have to learn from history not to depend on one source of food," Bowley says. "There are 400 to 500 different cow breeds in the world."
SVF's genetic history
Set on a medieval-looking expanse of stone buildings overlooking Newport Harbor, a massive stone bridge on the SVF property has served as a symbol of sorts--a bridge to the future survival of heritage breed livestock. Here, typically 130 animals live on some 46 acres. There are 12 to 15 cows, and the rest are small ruminants.
This was once the property of Arthur Curtiss James, a railroad baron and heir to the Phelps Dodge copper fortune. Originally built as Surprise Valley Farm in 1916, he and his wife, Harriet Parsons James, who equally loved the Italian Swiss Alps region, commissioned Grosvenor Atterbury to design their New England farm in that vein. At Surprise Valley Farm, they raised inherited prize Guernsey cattle. Both died in 1941, and the farm fell into dire straits, and then into the hands of developers who turned it into a rehabilitation center.
Summertime Newport denizen Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton, an heiress to the majority of the Campbell Soup Co., purchased the property and restored it. With the foundation she established, she returned the expanse to a greenbelt of activity true to the Jameses' days.
"This is her legacy," Bowley says of Hamilton, now a trustee of the foundation. "She's so proud of her work here and dedicated to it. She was so forward-thinking to agree to such a large program."
Much of the new use required creativity, such as converting a former horse stable into a state-of-the-art cryogenic laboratory.
Due to strict biosecurity, the farm is closed to the public except for open houses once a year. The 2014 open house will be held on June 14.
SVF staff work with veterinarians from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and SVF also offers an undergraduate internship. Recent student interns came from the University of Rhode Island, the University of Arizona and the University of Massachusetts. One former intern, Kevin Lindell, DVM, a clinician at Tufts, is the current president of the American Embryo Transfer Association (AETA).
The foundation is increasingly focused on education and other outreach. For example, it has forged new partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania, where Tom Parsons, VMD, the main swine vet at the New Bolton Center, is supervising a heritage swine behavioral study that SVF is collaborating on.
Turning a profit with heritage breeds
Machin has built a business raising and selling Tunis, Horned Dorset and crosses of the two in a manner similar to his grandfather. Since his initial Tunis exchange with SVF, he's focused on partnering to build his Horned Dorset flock. The arrangements have helped him to infuse his flock with genetics from across the country, well out into Oregon and Washington state.
"It has been nice to be part of this, and it has had some practical benefit for us, but more than anything we just believe in their mission," Machin says. "Our main reason was to keep the family tradition and to save the breed, but we also do need to make a living and build a business. When we work with SVF, they lease our animals from us. We could make more money if we kept and bred the ewes here and sold off their offspring, but SVF helps us seek out and bring back the best genetics from the best flocks in the country. This partnership benefits us both, and we think it will benefit future generations of sheep farmers. There's residual value as friends and partners."
Tamarack Vermont Sheep Farm keeps 200 breeding ewes and has about 500 sheep overall. Lambing takes place twice a year, in early spring and early fall. About 350 whole lambs go to market year-round, and the crosses, which produce the bigger lambs, have been well-received. "We're headed in the right direction," Machin says.
He also keeps the best of the flocks pure, bred and registered, all of which equals reputation. So he's protecting and preserving the heritage breeds and yielding production value to some degree.
Machin says segments of the public are interested in heritage breed animals. He, in turn, is creating a niche market for his meat, abetted by local food stores. "They support us," Machin says. "They've been here to the farm. They sell the special attraction to our meat."
Tunis and Dorsets are known for their mild, sweet meat. It doesn't hurt that the flock is pastured in the summer months and fed hay in the winter.
Machin says, "I'm not a chef, but we sell to chefs, and we always get a positive response. That's good enough for us."
His message to other farmers: Heritage breeds are a perfect choice for those looking for a low-input system. They are rugged, practical animals, and if consumers continue to care about heritage breeds and small farms (and he thinks they will), it's a win-win. "SVF has helped build our farm," Machin adds. "We're so thankful for that."
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.
Photos courtesy of the Swiss Village Farm Foundation.