Everything Animals: Reviving rare breeds - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Everything Animals: Reviving rare breeds

Guernsey cow Guernsey cow
Navajo-Churro sheep Navajo-Churro sheep
British Saddleback pig British Saddleback pig
Prepping Nancy, the Howacres Farm Guernsey cow, for judging. Prepping Nancy, the Howacres Farm Guernsey cow, for judging.

Tunbridge, Vermont - September 21, 2010

They say the cream always rises. It's an apt phrase, since the animal for whom that popular phrase was created is now trying to rise above the herd.

The Guernsey cow and its rich, cream filled milk is the inspiration behind that saying. The Guernsey, named for its original home on the Isle of Guernsey, was once the country's main source of milk, but the breed has fallen on hard times.

"When fat became a bad word and everybody tried to cut fat out of their diet and we homogenized milk and made 2 percent milk, the cows that made the high-fat percent milk weren't in as high demand," says Seth Johnson of the American Guernsey Association.

Seth Johnson and his family at Howacres Farm in Tunbridge are trying to keep the breed alive.

"Guernsey's account for less than half a percent of the total cow population," he says.

Classified as a watch breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Guernsey cow is in danger of disappearing, replaced by the high-milk-producing Holsteins. Even though Johnson estimates there are only 15,000 Guernsey cows in North America, he says he has hope.

"Just recently there's been a couple of new herds that have started up in the state, which is very promising, I think," he says.

That promise doesn't just pertain to Guernsey cows. At this year's Tunbridge World's Fair, rare breeds were anything but rare.

Rick and Sarah Scully raise Navajo-Churro sheep, the oldest breed in North America, at Terrapin Gardens in Tunbridge. But the breed was nearly wiped out during decades of conflict between the Navajo people and the federal government. Now they're finding new life in Vermont.

"They're a heritage breed, which is kind of like you would say of an heirloom tomato," Rick Scully explains. "It hasn't been changed over the years to be redder, or have fewer seeds or be sweeter."

The Navajo-Churro sheep has very low lanolin content in its wool, which makes it perfect for outwear and rugs. The breed produces more fleece than most and is shorn two times a year.

"They have natural sweaters so they're able to do really well during the winters here, but because we also have more nutrition in the pasture they're able to grow more wool," Rick Scully says.

Unlike most sheep that graze in pastures, the Navajo-Churro is accustomed to a desert-like landscape where they find food in low-growing shrubs and plants. Scully say Vermont's rich plant life provides a perfect diet for their herd.

Also growing in numbers is the British Saddleback pig. There are only three breeders in North America, two of whom were in Tunbridge: Steve Moeller from Ohio State University and Matt Whalen of Green Mountain Heritage Farm in Chelsea.

With fewer than 50 in North America, the British Saddleback is considered a study breed. That means the ALBC is looking into whether there are enough of them to bother protecting the species.

"I believe they're going to jump in here and start helping us," Whalen says.

British Saddleback pigs were largely bought up by commercial meat producers, which drastically lowered their numbers. But today's breeders find value in their large litter size, good mothering habits and sweet meat. However they have to be careful in how they breed the pigs since their small numbers make inbreeding a risk.

"We've sent offspring to Japan and Matt has purchased Saddlebacks from us," Moeller says.

Even though all these breeds are rare, they aren't obsolete. In fact there are still signs of their legacy in the items we buy today.

"The reason that butter is colored today is because people were originally used to a golden butter because it came from Guernsey cows and now, despite the fact that most of it comes from Holstein cows, they color it so it looks like what everyone's been used to for years and years," Johnson says.

Years and years of history that could have disappeared if not for these rare farmers working to keep that history alive.

To learn more about these breeds, visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy at www.albc-usa.org.

Rachel Feldman - WCAX News

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