Old cows, new market: Inside Maine’s heritage barnyard breeds
They may not be as large or produce as much meat, milk or eggs as quickly as their mainstream counterparts, but for those farmers and homesteaders who love them, heritage breeds fill a unique niche in Maine.
“My feelings are, these are good breeds to keep around,” Cindy Kilgore, livestock specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said. “They have a genetic pool that can be added to our existing livestock population.”
Your great-great-grandparents’ livestock
While not a scientific definition, when it comes to livestock “heritage breeds” are considered to be cattle, goats, swine, horses, rabbits or poultry that have remained a pure breed with deep, historical ties.
According to The Livestock Conservancy, these are animals that were bred over time to develop traits making them suited to specific, local environments in addition to being more disease-resistant than more modern breeds.
“The heritage breeds are from a time when people were into ‘self production’ to feed their family and not half of the country. Many farmers today want breeds that produce quicker, better, faster and sooner,” Kilgore said. “Heritage breeds don’t work well for mainstream agriculture. That is why they have gone by the wayside.”
New, commercial varieties of livestock and poultry have been selectively bred by humans to do one thing, and one thing only, really well — whether it’s a beef breed that puts on weight quickly so it’s ready for sale at a young age or a chicken that can lay an egg a day all year long.
However, as a result of being kept in commercial settings and being bred for one sole purpose, many of these commercial breeds have lost their ability to mother their young, have a lower tolerance for disease and can’t thrive in very hot or very cold climates.
Because of their hardy genetic stock, heritage breeds, on the other hand, tend to have healthier immune systems.
Finding that heritage niche
“It’s absolutely important to keep these [heritage] breeds going,” said Chris Russell, who with his wife Wendy Russell, runs Widdershins Farms in Dover-Foxcroft raising Devon cattle and large black hogs. “It’s nice to have something a little bit different.”
The Russells have 48 of the sturdy beef cows which Chris Russell calls triple threats.
“They produce meat, milk and muscle,” he said. “They are calm and medium sized and make good ‘oxen.’”
The Devons — which originated in Devonshire, England — were among the first livestock arriving with Europeans to what is now New England in the early 1600s.
They became well established in and by the 1700s had spread south to what is now Florida. They animals also headed west as the draft animal of choice on the Oregon Trail in the 1830s.
The Devons almost became extinct outside of New England by the 1950s where it does well on marginal pasture land and rugged terrain.
Today the Livestock Conservancy lists the Devons as “recovering” thanks to renewed interest in breeding the cattle.
“They really are good on poor quality land, in fact they thrive on it,” Chris Russell said. “And because of their small frame and meat-to-bone ratio on that small frame, they are an ‘easy keeper’ that don’t require a lot of extra feed.”
The farm’s 200 large black hogs also date back to a breed developed generations ago in Devonshire, where they were prized for their large size and ability to thrive and forage for themselves in woods and pastures.
Like so many heritage breeds, the hogs were displaced when farmers shifted to intense productions of indoor breeds in the early 1950s and the large blacks came close to extinction and remains one of the rarest British pig breeds.
The breed started to make a comeback in 2007 with the increased popularity of pasture-raised pork with consumers and in 2015 the large black hog was moved from “critically endangered” to “threatened.”
The Russells direct sell their beef and pork locally, Chris Russell said.
“That is really the place of heritage breeds in Maine,” Kilgore said. “The people who have them have developed their own niche markets and they are making those niches work.”
And they all fall down
When it comes to niche marketing with heritage breeds, Sonia Antunes of Falling Goat Farm in Belmont, may have among the more unique in Maine.
As the name of her farm implies, on falling goat, Antunes raises myotonic — or fainting — goats.
Also known as “leg,” “stiff,” “nervous” and “scare” goats, all of which refer to the breed’s genetic condition causing prolonged muscle contraction when the animal is startled.
The stiffness associated with the contractions can cause the goat to fall down, or “faint,” though it is a muscular and not a nervous system phenomena.
Antunes said she got into the breed when she first got goats after doing a lot of breed research.
“Fainting goats seemed to be a good fit,” she said. “While most goats are naturally good at climbing and jumping, that also means they’re experts at escaping enclosures [and] the condition that causes them to ‘faint’ diminishes this inclination.”
That, and the breed’s calm disposition, made them a great choice, she said. “They are considered a meat goat, but I don’t raise them for that purpose but rather to clear land and they excel at that.”
The breed dates back to the late 1880s when a farmer from Nova Scotia introduced the goat to the American south.
They became popular both for meat production and the novelty of fainting.
And, according to Antunes, for a somewhat less savery purpose.
“The story goes, shepherds would place them in their flocks of sheep,” she said. “If predators attacked the sheep, the goats would startle and ‘faint’ allowing the sheep to flee to safety while the goats were sacrificed.”
There is no official tracking of fainting goats in Maine, but the animals do well in the state, Atunes said, and as far as she knows, she is one of only three breeders in the state.
“In the winter they develop thick coats that protect them and keep them warm,” she said. “They lose those winter coats come spring and they fare our summers well.”
Thanks to their gentle disposition, the fainters can make great pets and produce enough milk to make cheese.
“What would this story be if I didn’t mention watching them faint?” Atunes said. “After many years I’ve never grown tired of seeing them freeze up and tip over.”
Here to stay
Kilgore said there are no numbers on how many Maine farmers are breeding and raising heritage breeds, but she did say the animals are a definite presence on the state’s livestock landscape.
“They want them for that slow growth and to sell to the people who want to buy local and see where the meat comes from,” Kilgore said. “There are farmers in Maine who love those heritage breeds.”
Chris Russell, for one, admires the animals’ staying power.
“They started out as a good breed a long time ago,” he said. “They’ve lasted a long time, and they are still a good agricultural breed.”
For Atunes, it’s recognition of farming heritage.
“I believe keeping heritage breeds opens a door to a past [and] a history of animals that may have fallen out of favor or popularity in trade for something newer, faster and bigger, but not always better,” she said. “Additionally, it’s important to remember that many commercial breeds originally came from their heritage counterparts.”
Photo courtesy of Chris Russell/Widdershins Farm
LARGE BLACK HOGS — A pile of baby Large Black Hogs snoozes on straw at Widdershins Farm in Dover-Foxcroft. The heritage breed does well in Maine, thriving on marginal pasture land.
Photo courtesy of Chris Russell/Widdershins Farm
DEVON CATTLE — Devon Cattle have been around for hundreds of years and were bred for meat production, milk production and for use as draft animals.