What does it mean?
The farm stock we have today came from breeds that have been bred over centuries for certain characteristics. In the last fifty years or so, farming has become “agribusiness.” On many large farms, now more factory than our childhood idea of Old MacDonald’s, certain breeds of stock have emerged as favorites. For instance, most of the milk in the United States is from Holstein cows who are very high volume milk producers. The same is true with other types of stock; one specialized breed predominates on the large farms. Since these animals do a good job at producing milk, meat and eggs, why is that a problem?
From a genetic standpoint, having one type of any animal or plant that predominates is not a good thing. Herds of genetically similar animals are vulnerable to disease and inherited problems. Because of this, it is important to retain genetic diversity by maintaining the old breeds from which the current ones were created. Someday the cows may need the resistance to a disease that was inherent in one of the old breeds. Also, many of the heritage breeds were versatile, barnyard multitaskers, not focused on one goal such as extremely high milk production. Some have resistance to disease, extreme climate conditions or are able to produce well on less of highly concentrated, grain based feeds. In birds, it may be as simple as knowing how to sit on eggs and hatch their own young without artificial help.
In their mission statement The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy says they are “ a nonprofit organization working to protect nearly 200 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction.” http://www.albc-usa.org/ They have cataloged these heritage breeds and now monitor the populations of every sort of farm animal you can imagine. Maintaining genetic diversity is of the utmost importance to the future of farming. Besides, what dull world it would be if all the cows were black and white!
Swedish Blue ducks, my four gals, are on the watch list of the ALBC. Though not on the endangered list, being watch listed means there are few breeding flocks of these birds- as of 2000, only 8 flocks of 50 or more birds existed. While that does not represent the total population, it is easy to see that numbers of these birds is not vast.
What is the advantage to Blue Swedish ducks? Blues are a medium size breed that produces both meat and eggs. During the laying season, my girls each lay an egg a day which are jumbo sized and wonderfully tasting. Their diet consists of a small amount of grain and anything delectable they find around the yard. They forage all day eating plants, worms, slugs, snails, grubs, mosquito larvae, ticks and even a occasional fly as it buzzes past them. Eggs and fewer bugs? For me, choosing a heritage breed was an easy choice.