After starting my definition of self-sufficiency, I knew there were certain types of livestock I would need on the Farm: meat animals, egg-producers, dairy-producers, wool and fur producers, and draft/labor animals. I started searching the internet, looking for breeds to fulfill those needs, and stumbled across the Livestock Conservancy. You can visit their site for a full explanation of who they are and what they do, but in short, their mission is to protect heritage breeds of livestock from extinction.
Naturally, the first question I had was, “What is a heritage breed?” In short, a heritage breed is a multi-purpose animal. In the United States, at least, we’ve become accustomed to single-use animals: Angus beef cattle and Jersey milk cows; Cornish-Cross meat chickens and white leghorn egg layers; and so on. This can rapidly become expensive on a farm where one goal is self-sufficiency: instead of having one cow that fills both beef and dairy needs, you either have to have two cows (who eat at least twice as much as one cow) or suffer with lower quantity and quality of one product or the other. And that’s where the heritage breeds come in.
I spent weeks browsing the Livestock Conservancy’s website, reading about the different breeds and comparing them to find breeds that I like and that fill the Farm’s needs. I chose multiple poultry animals primarily for eating variety.
- Milking Devon cattle
- Used for beef, dairy, and draft
- Popular choice among immigrants to what would become the United States
- Popular choice among pioneers on the Oregon Trail
- Better able to survive harsh conditions than main competitor, the Shorthorn
- Smaller size than many other breeds
- Guinea hogs
- Used for meat and cured meat products
- Expected to forage for food and clean out garden beds (mobile composters)
- Known to kill and eat snakes and other pests, creating a safe zone around buildings
- Chantecler chickens
- Used for eggs and meat
- Bred at a Canadian monastery to withstand cold winters and to be a winter layer
- Pilgrim geese
- Used for meat, but produce a reasonable quantity of large eggs as well
- Known for calm temperament
- Easy to tell genders apart from first day after they’ve hatched
- Jersey Buff turkeys
- Used for meat, but produce a reasonably quantity of eggs
- Known for overall calm temperament, but may be aggressive
- Cayuga ducks
- Used for eggs and meat
- Known to be docile when hand-raised
- Tolerant of harsh weather and capable of foraging the majority of its food
- American Chinchilla rabbits
- Used for meat and fur
- Docile temperament and good reproductive instincts
- Fast growers with good dressing weight
I was lucky enough last year to view some Pilgrim geese and Cayuga ducks at the Minnesota State Fair. Although I was unable to connect with the owners of the birds at the Fair, it gave me a good insight into their size and temperament (particularly given that the Fair is a stressful environment). I was rather surprised at the size of the Cayuga ducks: they’re nearly as large as several geese breeds! I also almost got some of the rabbits this spring from a local breeder, but time all was said and done, I just wasn’t up to jumping through the City’s legal hoops when the Farm plan is progressing as it has been.
I spent quite a bit of time debating on goats for wool. Ultimately, alpacas won out over goats, in part because of their livestock guardianship abilities (but also in part because I grew up with goats and I’m not real keen on owning them – sorry, Mom!).
I’m still debating over horses. They are a pretty well-accepted therapy animal and I do enjoy horseback riding, but at the end of the day, they’re mostly expensive pasture ornaments: they eat more than the cows do and produce less in return. However, I did some research anyway and selected Cleveland Bays as a riding/driving breed and Shires as a draft breed.
In addition to horses, bees have been another ongoing debate. Initially, I considered honeybees a good investment, but that was before I learned two important facts: they are not native to North America and they are not particularly good pollinators since they take much of what they collect back to the hive to turn into honey and related products (and besides, honeybees kind of freak me out, as I learned when visiting a local hive here – I’m not fond of bugs crawling on me!). Aside from honey product production, I’d much rather have native bees, which are also better pollinators. That does beg question of sweetener for use on the Farm, and I haven’t come up with a wholly satisfactory alternative yet. I think the happy middle ground may be a small honeybee hive for the honey, honeycomb, and beeswax kept near the alfalfa/clover field where pollination is less of a concern, and habitat for native bees across the rest of the Farm.
Look for a future post on the crop decisions for the Farm!