By MEGGIE. I. FOSTER
PITTSBORO, N.C. — Despite one of Budweiser’s most famous Super Bowl commercials of all time glorifying the majesty, beauty and playfulness of Clydesdale draft horses, the breed is surprisingly on the watch list for low numbers with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC).
“People are always surprised to find out that Clydesdales are on our watch list, since you see so many of them in parades and show circles,” said Ryan Walker, marketing and communications manager for ALBC, a non-profit membership organization that works to protect more than 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. “But the truth of the matter is that Clydesdales have greatly been replaced by tractors over the years and there are now less than 2,500 registered annually with a total global population under 10,000.”
In addition to the Clydesdale, the Guernsey dairy cow, well-known for its rich butterfat content is also on ALBC’s watch list. Between 1970 and 1990, annual registrations of purebred Guernsey calves dropped by 60 percent. And while some breeders have sought to stop this decline by increasing milk production, often through the introduction of Red and White Holsteins, this strategy has not been successful at increasing production enough to make the Guernsey cow competitive with the high-producing Holstein, and instead it has caused the breed to lose some of its genetic distinctiveness, according to Walker.
“During the 40s and 50s, Guernsey cows were one of the most popular dairy breeds in the United States, but since then the Holstein has taken over in popularity due to producing the most milk the quickest,” said Walker, adding that currently 90 percent of all dairy cattle are Holsteins.
Walker said that the ALBC ranks livestock and poultry breeds within five categories including: Critical, Threatened, Watch, Recovering (success stories) and Study (many times breeds that are just discovered).
One breed on the critical list, meaning closest to extinction, for ALBC is the Arapawa goat, a feral breed of domestic goat whose ancestors arrived with European colonists in New Zealand as early as the 1600s. Arapawas are considered medium-sized goats, weighing 60-80 pounds with bucks weighing up to 125 pounds. They have long hair and are predominantly black, brown and white in varying combinations. The Arapawa is a non-aggressive breed, which, if handled early in life, make excellent family goats.
According to Walker, there are only 15 breeders of Arapawa goats in the United States with a total population of around 150.
Walker said that Kerry dairy cattle, with a total U.S. population of 75 are also “one of the most endangered livestock breeds” on ALBC’s critical list. Kerry cattle are indigenous to Ireland and are one of the oldest European breeds of cattle.
According to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, prior to the 17th century the breed was one of the most prevalent in Ireland, but was little known outside of its native land. Kerry cattle were first imported into the United States in 1818, coming ashore in Pennsylvania. The breed never became widely popular in the United States, but a small population exists today from re-importations of cattle and semen beginning in the 1960s. Closely related to Dexter cattle, the Kerry is a small, dairy breed that originated from the same ancestral stock.
Other livestock and poultry breeds endangered or going extinct that often surprise people, according to Walker, include the Tennessee Fainting goat, Cleveland Bay horse, Newfoundland Pony, the newest horse breed added to the list with less than 30 in the United States and under 350 globally, the Shire draft horse, Road Island Red, Dominque, Holland, Chantecler and Campine poultry breeds.
“Each breed has its own story and certainly its own people who are passionate about preserving the history and heritage of the breed that they own,” said Walker.
Preservation of these breeds and hundreds more are key to the mission of the ALBC, because as agriculture changes and evolves, the industry may need to be able to draw on this genetic diversity for a broad range of uses and future opportunities. Because once lost, genetic diversity is gone forever, according to Walker.
“The best example is the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, when a disproportionate share of potato growers in Ireland only grew a single variety known as Lumper. After the blight hit, millions of Irish died, because at the time they were so dependent on potatoes for their nutrition,” said Walker. “It’s been theorized that this could happen when we start seeing our heritage livestock and poultry breeds going extinct. We see this work as an insurance policy so that if something like this did happen, we would have the genetic diversity needed to survive.”
History of ALBC
Founded in 1977, the ALBC originated during Massachusetts’ bicentennial celebration when the Old Sturbridge Village and Plimouth Plantation, were looking to upgrade exhibits of the livestock breeds that were popular during early settlement.
“Looking back, the breed that was the centerpiece of the dairy industry at that time was the Milking Devon,” said Walker. “Once that was identified, a group of individuals searched for the breed for nearly a year and finally found a small population of six cows. We wondered if these were so hard to find, what’s the status of some of these other breeds that were popular at the time. Since then, the ALBC has added 189 breeds to our list, with an update coming up in April.”
Walker said that the ALBC researches breed characteristics and populations of 11 different livestock and poultry species including cattle, goats, horses, asses, pigs, rabbits, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese. In addition to serving as a resource for many endangered livestock and poultry breeds, the ALBC also offers hands-on educational workshops, traveling to locations across the country.
“We are the first interaction that many people have with these heritage breeds,” said Walker. “Take for example the Leicester Longwool sheep, now found at Colonial Williamsburg that were imported back to the United States to preserve a critically low population that existed here in the U.S. Most of the animals on our list are pre-1925 breeds, with many of these breeds contributing to American agriculture for some time.”
Each year, the ALBC releases a new Conservation Priority List in the spring, adding new breeds or re-adjusting categories of breeds depending on current population numbers, many of which are reported by ALBC members and breed associations.
To become a member or for more information, call 919-542-5704 or visit www.albc-usa.org