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Main Content

Saving Rare Breeds

The Livestock Conservancy ensures agriculture’s future by protecting heritage stock and poultry from extinction

By Carol Davis

Photography by Mark Mosrie

The Lamona chicken was supposed to be the chicken of the future.

It took 16 years to develop a prolific egg-layer and good meat bird, and by 1921, the Lamona was ready to out-produce the competition.

But it never happened.

“Commercialization happened,” says Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit membership organization working to protect nearly 200 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction.

Large-scale agriculture that began after the end of World War II chose a few breeds specifically selected for intensive production. The old breeds didn’t fit into this approach and fell out of favor.

Some, like the Leicester Longwool sheep, Choctaw pig, and Dutch Belted cattle are in danger of slipping away into extinction. They are on the conservancy’s “Critical” list, which means that there are fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and an estimated global population of less than 2,000.

Others, like the Lamona chicken, were lost before the conservancy ever had a chance to intervene.

Jeannette and The Livestock Conservancy are determined to keep other breeds from going the way of the Lamona chicken.

Losing Their Jobs

The idea that a livestock breed could become extinct may be puzzling, but it’s an unfortunate circumstance.

“They basically lose their jobs, is the bottom line,” Jeannette explains.

“Every breed was developed for a specific job, but we left diversity behind for large-scale commercial production,” she says. “After World War II, we had all the Baby Boomers and we needed a lot of food in short order for a lot of people, and that’s why we turned to commercial production — to meet needs of a growing population.”

Such commercialization resulted in an unintended consequence.

“Animals designed for very specific niches had to compete with those that grow faster and bigger, and that was the end of a lot of these breeds,” Jeannette says.

A classic example? The Rhode Island Red chicken.

“It was a really great dual-purpose bird and fairly common. It was a good homestead fowl and was all over the place,” she says.

But in the mid-1940s, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company — better known as the A&P supermarket chain — sponsored the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest to develop a superior meat chicken with a broader breast, plumper thighs, and larger drumsticks.


“They had people try and raise birds that would grow faster and bigger than anything else,” Jeannette says. “It led to a commercial hybrid cross that now dominates poultry production.”


And as these new-and-improved chickens made it to market, the once-dominant Rhode Island Red lost its job and its marketplace, she says.


“Today, the real old-fashioned Rhode Island Red is quite rare and hard to come by,” Jeannette says.


Those available from hatcheries are commercial hybrid birds and not the true heritage breed, she says. “Some originals are out there … but there’s just a handful of truly dedicated breeders who have the real deal anymore.”

And how do you know if you have the real deal?


“It goes back to the Standard of Perfection from the American Poultry Association, a book from the 1800s which outlines in great detail what these chickens are supposed to look like,” she says. “You can very quickly figure out if you have a Rhode Island Red by checking the standards.”


If a particular breed doesn’t have published standards, then it’s imperative to do the research.


“When people want to get involved with a breed, I always tell them to do their homework, ask a lot of questions, and,” she says, “don’t take as gospel what animals are unless you see the paperwork and they fit the standards.”


“I know what to look for, but it’s a skill that took years to acquire,” she continues. “That’s challenging for newcomers when they try to buy the real deal. They don’t know what they’re looking for and end up buying a hybrid.”


Passion For Pineywoods


As Bruce and Marge Petesch neared retirement, they planned to move from Raleigh, N.C., to a farm they had bought in Silk Hope, N.C., but they weren’t sure what animals to raise.


They learned about the conservancy, conveniently located in Pittsboro, just 20 minutes from their farm.


When Bruce explained to Jeannette what he was looking for, the discussion narrowed to Pineywoods cattle, one of the oldest cattle breeds in the United States. The small, but rugged, Pineywoods breed is descended from Spanish cattle brought to the Americas in the early 1500s.


The breed is heat tolerant, resistant to diseases and parasites, and long-lived. It also has a gentle temperament, which was important to the Petesches.

Jeannette put him in touch with two Pineywoods breeders in Mississippi and the couple traveled there to see the animals and learn more about them. 

Bruce decided on Pineywoods cattle because they best fit his goals. 

“I was attracted to their history, their size, their durability … and to the fact that they were Southern cattle that fit our climate so well,” he says. 

Though their principle business is selling breeding stock, the Petesches figure they’ll eventually sell their cattle for meat. But for now, the emphasis is on increasing the Pineywoods’ numbers. 

“This is not a breed to be played with or to cross-breed,” he says. “Every one of these animals is significant from a genetic standpoint.” 

That was one reason why the Petesches chose to raise Pineywoods cattle. 

“Part of our interest is to help others start herds because we would like the animal to get into a much more secure position with regard to its viability,” Bruce says. 

‘People Depend On Us’ 

In 2006, Jeannette left a career in zookeeping, managing a Rhode Island zoo’s heritage breeds farm, to work with the conservancy.


She found herself at an organization with a stellar reputation, 40 years of valuable networking, and a strong membership. She also was surrounded by colleagues who valued the heritage breeds as much as she did.


“I was blown away at the caliber of people who were doing this work and how committed they were, and are,” she says. “There’s nothing else out there that comes close to what we do.”


As research and technical programs manager, much of Jeannette’s time is spent in the field performing such work as: tracking down specific endangered breeds; collecting DNA from wild turkeys to compare with domestic turkeys so that, in the event of a deadly virus, domestic turkeys can be recreated; and assessing feral goat populations in British Columbia to see if they’re related to American heritage goats.

But for all the work that the conservancy does, the real heroes of saving heritage breeds are those, such as the Petesches, who are actually breeding, raising, and managing rare breeds, Jeannette says.


“We’ve got a lot of fans and devotees, and we’re fortunate with the network of people we have,” she says.


Still, saving endangered breeds can be heartbreaking, exhilarating, frustrating, and gratifying, all at the same time, she says.


More than anything, it’s important work.


“It’s meaningful,” Jeannette says. “And it’s not just about the animals; it’s the people, too. We care about our members. They depend on us.”

On the Critical List

Crevecoeur chicken

One of the oldest of the standard-bred fowls of France, the Crevecoeur once was a premier meat bird there, until the exotic-looking chicken became a popular show bird.

“They were show birds for so long that people neglected to select them for meat,” she says. “I want them back on the table; I want to give them a job.”

Once the conservancy began investigating the Crevecoeur, locating a good purebred flock took 8-10 months, Jeannette says.

“I talked with the leadership of the America Poultry Association and I started a Facebook page to find people and posted on social media, but I found very, very few,” she says.

She found a flock of purebreds, and an owner willing to share, but the chickens were smaller than the original breed. Jeannette is managing a five-year breeding program to bring the Crevecoeur back to what it once was.

Santa Cruz horse

One of the rarest strains of colonial Spanish horses, the Santa Cruz horse is named for Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California, where it had been since the 1830s, when a group of Spanish horses were brought up from Mexico.

The National Park Service purchased Santa Cruz Island from a private owner in 1997 and removed the horses because they were non-native and were impacting the island’s environment.

Fortunately, horse rescuer Christina Nooner adopted as many as possible and contacted the conservancy, Jeannette says.

“I’ve been working little by little to find breeders for this breed,” she says. “If we could get a foothold in the horse market in California, we’d have a nice niche market. These horses have a story associated with California that no other breed has.”

Hog Island sheep

This rare breed is the only representative of sheep that early British colonists would have brought over during the colonial period, Jeannette says. A feral sheep population thrived on Hog Island, off the Virginia coast, after a series of hurricanes and storms in the 1930s caused residents to leave in the next decade.

When the Nature Conservancy bought the island in 1974, the sheep were removed from Hog Island, studied, and placed at historical sites, such as George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument, Plymouth Plantation, and Mount Vernon, as well as with private stewards.

The breed, which has tasty meat, is becoming more popular with chefs, and with people involved in grass farming and silvopasturing, in which a farmer combines livestock, pasture, and trees on the same unit of land.

“This breed is a great sheep choice if someone has a mixed wooded area,” Jeannette says.