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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Preserving Rare Livestock Breeds

In the U.S., when most people think dairy cattle, the black and white Holstein usually comes to mind. When they think beef, Angus is usually the first cattle breed out of their mouths. Common horse breeds are the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred, and popular sheep breeds are the Dorset and Suffolk. All these breeds are popular for specific reasons: Holsteins give the most milk, Angus are known for good meat quality, Thoroughbreds are the super-athletes of the horse world, and Quarter Horses can do just about anything. (I am a bit partial to Quarter Horses, so please excuse the hyperbole — but it’s true.)

But what about rare breeds of livestock?

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) was organized in 1977 to preserve rare breeds of livestock in the U.S. Although having the bragging rights to raising a rare breed of animal can be reason enough for some people to pursue this hobby, the primary reason such a conservancy exists is to help preserve biodiversity.

When most people think about species extinction, animals like the elephant, cheetah, and mountain gorilla tend to come to mind. Usually the thought of a farm animal going extinct just doesn’t register, and it’s certainly not as glamorous. However, preserving threatened livestock breeds has recently become a global concern. The Food and Agriculture Organization within the United Nations reported in 2007 that 20 percent of the world’s 7,600 livestock species were at risk of extinction. That’s a huge chunk of the gene pool.

How exactly, then, do livestock go extinct? Some, like the Santa Cruz sheep, were purposefully eradicated. Almost.

Living only in the Channel Islands National Park off California, in the 1980s, eradication attempts on the Santa Cruz breed were made in an effort to protect the park’s flora. The sheep population dropped from more than 21,000 to about 40. Fortunately, this is a fairly extreme case. The more common reason for dwindling numbers is simply competition. The common breeds of today’s livestock are the highest producers of whatever they are used for: namely, the best milkers or the biggest muscling for meat. If a farmer only has a limited amount of land, to make a living, he needs animals that can produce the most on what he has to give them. Such is the name of the game in agriculture.

I’ve never been to a dairy that has the breed Milking Devons. Or a hog farm with the Gloucestershire Old Spot Pig. But I have seen a farm with Tunis sheep, a lovely orange-colored sheep that gets fairly large, and they are extremely personable, as well as a farm with Jacob sheep, a small breed with black and white spots that are “polycerate,” or multi-horned, meaning they can grow two horns on each side (I call these extra handles). I’ve also been to a farm that raises Belted Galloway cattle, or as I call them, Oreo cows, because they are black at both ends with a white “belt” in the middle.

Visiting these farms is always neat and sometimes a challenge. Some of the rare small ruminant breeds are quite flighty, making catching them sort of a comedy to the outside viewer. Acting very much like a wild prey species, some of these rare sheep breeds are extremely susceptible to stress and require far smaller doses of anesthetics than their common counterparts.

People who raise these breeds keep immaculate breeding records of their animals and can sometimes trace lineage back generations, making you realize just how small some of these gene pools really are. Larger operations help breeds through more advanced technologies like keeping frozen semen and even harvesting and storing frozen embryos.

If the loss of species is a little depressing, take heart. On ALBC’s website, there are lists of recovering breeds, so intervention appears to be working for some.

As with most things, the initiation to make a change is awareness. If you’re interested in learning more about these threatened breeds of livestock, take some time to peruse ALBC’s excellent website. You might even find a local event like a Rare Breeds Show or Livestock Expo to attend.

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: (Belted Galloway Cattle) Dave McAleavy / Shutterstock

Comments  3

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  • Charolais
    07/12/2013 10:23pm

    I grew up close to Jerry Litton's farm in Chillicothe, MO where they raised Charolais cattle. Although I didn't know anything about them (except they are white), I knew it was a big deal because everyone talked about it. (I don't know what happened to the pristine farm after the Litton family was all killed in a plane crash in 1976.)

    Are Charolais still raised anywhere?

  • 07/14/2013 02:01pm

    Yes, Charolais are raised in other areas - I see them sometimes here in the mid-Atlantic. Although not as common as the Angus or Hereford, Charolais are another cattle breed raised for beef in the US. They are also used to create cross-breeds. Their white coloring and heavy muscling makes them fairly easy to identify.

  • not only cattle and sheep
    07/15/2013 04:45pm

    My goodness, this is true, and not only for livestock! Many dog breeds are equally endangered, yet the average dog loving pet owning public remains clueless. A dog is a dog, for most people, and size, color and coat type are basically the only features that come to mind. There is so much more involved, it boggles the mind, yet decisions are made every day in legislatures and town boards that ignore the ramifications of this kind of shallow thinking. At least with livestock breeds there isn’t the same level of political quicksand as with purebred dogs. Thank goodness for the dedicated people who breed some of our heritage dog breeds whose original purpose might be long gone from human society – wolf hunting, for example (although coming back into the public conversation lately), or otter elimination with otterhounds. A friend of mine breeds otterhounds, which are perilously close to extinction, and my favorite breed, PBGVs, are considered by the AKC to be endangered due to the drop in numbers of litters since recognition in 1990 – almost DOA, right out of the box, a terrible shame for such a super-cool breed of dog.

    With some great mentors by my side, I hope to add 4 or 5 puppies in a few weeks, wish me luck. We decided on a sire from a French kennel, the country of origin, broadening the genetic mix, as opposed to deepening. I am thrilled to be able to do this before the devastating effects of the proposed nationwide anti-breeding laws steam roll the dog fancy – PUPS and the proposed APHIS rule that will make me an instant law breaker after this litter. The public seems convinced that dog breeders are all abusive and cruel, exploiting dogs for blue ribbons or ‘profit’ – let me show you my vet bills, health clearances, registering with CHIC, OFA, CERF, mileage between 3 cities to produce one litter of 4, possibly 5, and then tell me that ribbons or ‘profit’ are my goal . . .

    Your blog post made me both glad and sad. Glad to learn that there is at least some support for preserving rare animal breeds, but sad to realize that dog breeds are probably past the point of no return due to the efforts of groups like HSUS and PETA, who literally lie to the public about their intentions. Preserving rare breeds of any domestic animals will be a moot point if we don’t raise awareness, and pretty darned quickly!

    Of course farmers have to consider ROI and all those sensible things necessary to make a living, but the public should learn to expand its world view of domestic animals. There is much more to consider than gallons of milk per cow, or pounds of beef per acre of pasture and bushel of grain. The environment is a huge factor! In dog breeds, form follows function, but in a society where subsistence hunting is a dim memory, and most people haven’t set foot on a farm since their 4th grade field trip to pick out a pumpkin, this is nonsense. Mentioning that West Highland white terriers are white for a reason simply gets a “huh?” Or “white is so pretty”. My breed is rare even in France, its country of origin, because of this extreme specialization, compounded by reduced interest in hunting and loss of wild land. Not to mention laws that penalize people for not sterilizing their dogs – or even REQUIRING them to do so by law in parts of California - and a generation of young people raised on Disney and the Muppets, where animals and people are all muddled together in their minds.

    I am so looking forward to this upcoming litter of an endangered breed. The public needs to be aware that 'a dog is a dog' is based in ignorance. I am very late to start doing this, and it wasn’t in the cards when I was given this lovely, healthy bitch, but life circumstances have dropped this opportunity in my lap. I dare anyone to say I shouldn’t be doing this “while shelter dogs die” – if more people did exactly what I am doing, with such an incredible support system of knowledgeable and experienced people, there would be far fewer dogs being abandoned or relinquished to a shelter. These potential puppies are my responsibility for their entire life, yet because each of them, plus my beautiful bitch, are/will be co-owned by some of these experienced mentors, we may have to go into hiding. This proposed APHIS rule (final decision should be soon) will make me a criminal because these pups will be whelped in my breakfast room with constant supervision, their own personal maid service, and their growth and development optimized, as opposed to a sterile USDA-style kennel with 'impervious surfaces'.

    Thanks for the chance to vent here, hoping that this site is not visited much by HSUS and PETA trolls who will track me down and report me for this loving endeavor to add beautiful, healthy puppies with French hunting genes and show-stopping appearance (wink wink) to the endangered population of this breed.

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