What’s the deal with Heritage Breeds? A Beginner’s Introduction

When friends and family come to visit our farm, for some reason I feel obligated to let them know what breeds of animals we have. For regular cityfolk, it comes as a surprise to find out, like dog breeds, there are all different breeds of livestock.  I start to sound a bit like a broken record however, “It’s a heritage breed of chicken, it’s called a light Sussex.”, “It’s a heritage breed of turkey, its a Ridley Bronze.”, “It’s a Heritage breed of pig, it’s an American Guinea Hog.”.  I usually blather on at a great speed talking about how great the animals are, until someone eventually asks “What’s the deal with heritage breeds?”.

The fast answer, is that heritage breeds are the breeds of animals that were around prior to the industrialization of livestock, or factory farming.  They were on farms everywhere, and were bred and raised to be hardy animals on a farm.  Natural breeding, normal mothering instincts, and good forging skills were encouraged, as it benefited the farmer.  Essentially, the animals could reproduce easily on their own, could find their own food (or quite a bit of  it), and had more gentle personalities.  “Ok…”, says my non-farming friend or relative, “so what’s factory farming then?”.


This is what the author looks like, when she rants about factory farming (with apologies to the light Sussex chicken)

Skip forward some years from our heritage breeds on small farms, and factory farming is in full swing.  With the discovery of vitamin D, chickens can now be successfully raised indoors and egg production can go full tilt as sunlight is no longer required.  Feed is for maximum egg production, as the chicken has also been bred for that.  It would be logical of course then to tightly fit as many birds as possible into the smallest amount of space – after all, housing costs money.  Welcome to industrialized farming.

Back to genetics.  When anything is bred specifically for one trait, other things can go by the wayside.  Look at roses for example.  Fabulous colours were produced in the last while, while the famous trait of what makes a rose a rose – it’s scent – started to change.  Want to have your mind blown?  Find an antique or heritage rose and give it a sniff… (spoiler alert!).. it’s heaven.  So how did our livestock fare, after being bred for one trait ?  Fantastic… for that one trait.  Everything else went out the window. Meat chickens were bred so they could have large muscle mass in a mere five to seven weeks, and ready for slaughter…not taking into consideration the required bone structure development to support that weight.  Heart problems resulted as well, as their hearts can’t keep up with their rapidly growing chicken body. It’s humane to slaughter them at that young, age – they can’t physically continue.  Creating a chicken with genetics like that?  Not so humane.  But whose to blame?

I hate to have to point this out, but it’s the consumer.  Yes, that’s right.  It’s us.  Don’t get me wrong, I think we were conned by marketing and our own social constructs of farming to get to this point.  And it was gradual.  You want to eat meat every night?  I believe a majority of North American families were taught and raised that this was the healthy thing to do.  And with everyone watching their wallets, industrialized meat meant cheaper… not more ethical, certainly not healthier, but defiantly cheaper.  Of course, if you weren’t a farmer, and lived in the suburbs, you would have no idea that farming had changed that much.   And how were you to know?  The marketing on the outside of the egg packages still feature happy chickens on idilic pastures.

Chickens weren’t the only ones that saw major changes.  Pigs don’t have it so great either, bred for absolute massive sizes, and given no space in concrete and metal pens, and zero access to the great outdoors.  Of course, if your standing in your own filth, or it’s dropped below you through metal grates, you’re probably not going to be feeling too healthy.  That’s where the antibiotics come in.  Continually being dosed with antibiotics until the pig is butchered is the answer.  If you are feeling particularly brave, and have a great therapist, just search images of “industrialized pig farming”.  Keep in mind that once you see it, you can’t un-see it!  Consider yourself warned!


Ridley Bronze Heritage Turkeys

Is industrialized farming all bad? Some farmers are making changes, and making it better for the life of the pig, providing cleaner and larger environments for their animals.  However, as for making the meat healthier… pasture raised is better.  The freedom to have your pigs move about, exercising, enjoying the weather, rooting if they’d like to, and munching on a wide variety of vegetation makes for healthier meat.  I recently watched a lecture of the famous Permaculturist Geoff Lawton, where he made the distinction between the word “food” and “nutrition”, which I thought was brilliant.  North America has plenty of “food”… but nutrition, well that’s a different matter.

Sadly, because heritage breeds aren’t the popular industrialized breeds, there is a real risk of loosing them. And by “loosing” I mean, the breed becoming extinct.   The Ridley Bronze Turkey is one of those breeds, with only 250 registered female hens at the last survey.  Needless to say, we are proud to have a population here on our farm, and are proud to do what we can to keep this Canadian heritage breed around for generations to come.  Happy Farming!


The Shepherd

P.S.  Want to learn more about Heritage Breeds, and pick out some possibles for your own farm?  Or dream farm?  Try the following to get started…

Canadian Heritage Breeds

Livestock Conservancy




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