The Livestock Conservancy’s mission is to protect America’s endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction. Once lost, these pieces of living history are gone forever.
Why Conservation Matters
Heritage breeds of livestock and poultry protect our food systems, both now and into the future. By securing genetic diversity we enable healthy agriculture development while preserving heritage, history, and culture. These animals represent an irreplaceable piece of earth’s biodiversity that once lost, will be gone forever.
Heritage breed conservation retains animals well suited for sustainable, grass-based systems, which gives some small farms a competitive edge. It also broadens the marketplace with diverse fiber and flavorful foods. Their unique genetic traits offer an incredible variety that may be needed for future farms, including robust health, mothering instincts, foraging, and the ability to thrive in a changing climate.
As guardians of this genetic diversity, The Livestock Conservancy prevents extinctions, expands populations, educates beginning farmers, and helps breeders establish new markets for their products. Our programs maintain the long-term viability and sustainability of endangered breeds. Since its inception in 1977, The Livestock Conservancy has not lost a breed listed on our Conservation Priority List.
For over 40 years The Livestock Conservancy has accomplished conservation through our Discover, Secure and Sustain process. Each step has specific tasks that must be done, and specific pitfalls that must be avoided if conservation is to succeed.
Discover means finding rare breeds and unknown herds, out there, in the fields and woods and barns where they have quietly survived for generations. Important populations can be discovered many different ways, sometimes they are noticed on a farm using other more recognizable rare breeds, and very frequently they are discovered when someone mentions the old guy down the road with some interesting animals. Discovery is most essential for landraces and feral populations.
It takes research to figure out if newly discovered animals might in fact “be something.” The place and the history of both the people and the animals set the context. Gaps in the history may be discovered that change the context. If the animals meet the biological definition for a breed or a strain, the next step is to get a good close look at the animals. Does the herd or flock reflect the history of origin? Is there a consistency of breed type across all the animals? A census occurs at this stage, too, and the breed characteristics are documented.
Secure. It takes science, politics, collaboration, and a hefty portion of luck to secure a breed. The goal is to prevent further genetic erosion by setting up a plan that encourages breeders to conserve all of the genetic diversity found within the breed. This begins by figuring out the structure of the breed population. How each herd or flock relates to the others? How are the animals related to each other? DNA analysis can sometimes help at this stage, though much is learned from oral and written histories. Breeding strategies are devised that maintain bloodlines but protect against the loss of health that occurs with inbreeding. Securing a population requires that people work together. To be successful the breeders absolutely must work together to save the animals in the environmental and cultural context closest to that in which they evolved. Breed associations, registries, promotion and marketing, all come out of this human collaboration.
Sustain. This is the stage where a breed can really take off. The breed has been secured genetically, and has been stabilized with regard to population structure and genetic variation. With smart thinking, patience, and respectful cooperation, breeds can grow into valued components of our agricultural and food systems. During this step new people become interested in the breed, and they need education on husbandry, breeding, and genetic resource management to sustain the breed for the future. They need information about the process of converting living animals to human food, and how to connect with customers. New and experienced breeders alike also seek help in thinking through all of the stages that a breeder goes through in a lifetime of breeding. These include frequently overlooked topics such as herd reduction or liquidation, disaster planning, and so on. Planning for these contingencies ensures that the breed doesn’t slip back into the perilous slide toward extinction.