Monday, December 14, 2009

It Only Takes an Acre of Less...

by Leslie Edmundson

When we read stories about how a dedicated individual has single-handedly kept a breed from extinction, it’s inspiring. It’s amazing. We’re reading about a fellow ALBC member who has achieved something that most of us would deem impossible, but has managed to succeed. We’d all like to do that, too. But for many of us, who don’t come from three generations of farmers and who don’t have large farms, the dream of saving a breed is, well, a little daunting. Especially to those of us who don’t know the difference between a cow and a heifer and who could never handle a large horse or an ass without looking like one.

Think again. We ‘little people’ can be important breeders, too. Look around you – your cat has had fresh water in her bowl every day for ten years and her coat looks great. Your dog is up-to-date on all of his shots and gets his walk even in inclement weather. You have what it takes to be a responsible breed steward, you just don’t know it yet. We need you to start thinking about it.

Look way back into your family tree. Someone there had some livestock in their backyard. Not a big operation with modern high-production, genetically-engineered livestock, but just a small handful of hardy stock. Heritage breeds. The kind that don’t need specialized treatment to raise and manage. The kind you could rely on to keep a family going. That’s what kept the good breeds going for so long. Surprisingly enough, many of the highly-endangered breeds are still being kept alive in the same manner. ‘Backyard breeders’ still represent the majority of breeders of many of the heritage breeds listed by the ALBC. Their role contributes significantly to the continued existence of these breeds, and we’d be lost without them.

If you only have an acre or two, you can successfully breed heritage livestock. Actually, you can do it on a quarter of an acre. Let’s see how it’s done, shall we?

Raising chickens is simple. Just build, buy, or order a coop. It doesn’t have to be big. Get five hens and a rooster, all of the same endangered breed. In the morning, fill a bowl with chicken feed (aptly named – it costs about $3.00 per month to feed six chickens), put out a 1-gallon bucket of fresh water, and open the door of the coop. Don’t worry, they won’t fly away. At night, once the chickens have all gone to bed of their own accord, close the coop. Pretty easy, huh? The eggs taste great, the chickens will eat all of the creepy-crawlies in your yard, and when you let a hen keep her eggs for awhile, she’ll hatch out a nice brood of chicks for you. And each time she does, you’ve successfully increased the population of that breed.

Maybe you don’t have enough room for six chickens. Perhaps you should talk to Alan Shrader of the American Blue and White Rabbit Club­. He’ll tell you all you need to know about keeping rabbits; he’s incredibly interesting and very kind. Rabbits are gentle and rabbit hutches are compact. Your neighbors could never complain about a couple of rabbits in your back yard. There are only 150 American rabbits left. They really need more dedicated breed stewards. They’re friendly and easy-to-keep, and just because they’re a meat breed doesn’t mean you actually have to eat them. Just get a buck and a doe, and have fun playing with the baby bunnies until they’re old enough to sell to other responsible breeders (you might try eating a few of them, though).

If you have one or two acres, you may wish to bring that ‘pastoral’ look to your place. Nothing is more serene than a flock of sheep grazing on an open field of grass. Back yard breeders will be happy to learn that you don’t have to have twenty sheep in a flock. You can just have two. A sound breeding program is perfectly respectable even if it’s very small. Enjoy sitting back with a cold drink doing a bit of knitting while the sheep clip and fertilize your lawn for you all summer long.

Goats, perhaps? Goats are great fun. Baby goats and children are a natural match, and goats are hypoallergenic. Goats love fast-growing vines like honeysuckle and poison ivy. Hoof trimming is only as difficult as trimming the nails of a dog ­– tricky the first time, but after a few tries it just takes two minutes. San Clemente Island bucks are very gentle, and with a global population of 200 you may wish to commit to keeping a couple. They only live as long as dogs, so your commitment need not be for the rest of your life. But goats are easier to keep than dogs, as they won’t bark at the postman or drool on your cat.

People often avoid critically endangered breeds for fear that the animals, being so rare, are therefore very expensive. Untrue. We’re breeders, not poachers. Even the rarest of breeds are usually priced competitively, and are expected to earn their keep by production, not by exploitation. If you have just a couple of animals, don’t expect a large profit, but even hobby breeders should expect their animals to earn their own feed and to contribute food to their owners’ tables, one way or another.

Many rare breeds have a very limited geographical distribution. We need to increase populations, but we also need to spread them out geographically. This means that bringing breeding animals into your area, where none existed before, is a good thing. But it also means that you’re going to have to get creative with a logistical challenge: how to bring the animals home. When the nearest breeding pair of goats is three states away, is this an insurmountable obstacle? Not at all. Getting them is half the fun, and if you can’t travel, they can hitchhike a ride on a horse trailer, truck, or with a travelling relative. Chickens can travel by mail, and baby goats will fall asleep in the back seat of your car or in the cargo hold of an airplane.

Meeting the challenge of bringing your breeding stock home also means that you’ve greatly expanded the distribution of your breed. Now the breed is available to everyone in your area, and has become miles closer to the next area that needs to be populated. Other breeders who need to add variance to their gene pool will have a better chance of obtaining it, thanks to you. By importing a couple of breeding animals, you start a chain reaction that can result in a greater nationwide distribution and availability of endangered breeds. Backyard breeders can do this, whereas it might be prohibitive to the Big Guys who only keep Big Herds. This makes your little breeding program an invaluable asset to endangered breeds, doesn’t it?

As you can see, you can help to save an endangered heritage breed in your own back yard. If you don’t know anything about raising geese, ducks, pigs, or any of the other animals, don’t worry, almost every dedicated heritage breeder will help you learn and succeed. That’s what breed associations do, too. Try calling a breeder or a breed association and see what happens. You’re asking someone to talk about their favorite pastime. It’s really fun! And don’t forget that the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is here to help too. Not only are the ALBC staff always willing to go the extra mile to help you accomplish your goal of becoming a breed steward, but the +/-4,000 ALBC members are all on your team, too, even if you’re just an aspiring novice looking for a couple of turkeys. All Livestock Breeders Count.