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Breeding Dissension

Garth Brown |

The bull hardly came to my waist, a good foot shorter than the cows beside him. As they stood in a tight ring, peeling flakes of hay off of a sorry looking round bale, the sod beneath their hooves was slowly churned to mud. The cows looked like regular Jerseys to me, maybe a bit on the small side, but the bull was the obvious anomaly. His shoulders weren’t large, but they had a humped roundness to them, and his legs were like corks.

“I know what you’re wondering,” said their owner. “I’ve watched. What he does is follow the cow around until she’s going downhill. That’s how he gets them.”

The man shared the bull’s barrel chest and waddling gait, and along with his bushy moustache and black leather coat, this gave him the appearance of a paunchy seal. He sold dogs, mainly, Vizslas and German Short Haired Pointers, and our entire conversation was conducted over a bored cacophony coming from the row of kennels across the road. The miniature livestock was clearly a sideline, but of these second class citizens it was clear the bull held pride of place.

“He’s got this thing, so his calves are small like him. Doesn’t matter what cow it comes from.”

I’m no geneticist, but the way he described its potency made me question his grasp of basic biological principles, in particular what could be called a breed. My concerns were confirmed when, after I asked him where I would go to purchase a bull or other breeding stock to complement any cows I might buy from him, he blithely assured me that I could get all the genetics I’d ever want right where I stood - this bull was of such quality that there would never be a need to look elsewhere.

I should have been suspicious earlier. Not that I entirely believed everything I read online about Miniature Jerseys, that they gave two thirds the milk for one third of the feed, that they were docile and easy-calving, not to mention long-lived and disease free, but I believed it enough to drive a bit more than an hour south into the Catskills to check them out. Once I was standing there in the mud with a dwarf bull and some of the most ragged cows I’d ever seen, it didn’t take long to decide that they weren’t for me. To be honest, I suspected they weren’t for anyone. Though this was very early in my farming career, I’d already begun to realize that, more than most anything I’d previously encountered in my life, trying to work with the land would have an uncomfortable habit of ending up with a stark, reality-based measure of success or failure.

For example, I once decided that geese were the answer. Before buying them I did a lot of research, and in the process built an ironclad case. Geese, you see, are by a wide margin the best domestic fowl when it comes to eating grass. If a turkey or a chicken heads out into the pasture some fine morning with the intention of impressing the whole barnyard with his appetite for the sward only to find a goose already at work, he may as well turn around and slink back to the barn. Geese are also hearty. Their wild counterparts spend lots of their free time splashing around in frozen lakes, so it should be no surprise that, unlike broilers and broad-breasted turkeys, rain and cold are no concern. Geese are not widely eaten. The buying public may have been convinced that it’s reasonable to expect an entire chicken carcass to cost half as much as a movie ticket, but no such preconception exists when it comes to goose.

The reality turned out to mostly match this vision. One of the cutest things I’ve ever seen was the goslings running into the grass the first time I let them out of the brooder, tottering back and forth as they waddled out. Pride filled me as they ate clover and grass and more clover. Once they had some feathers they were impervious to the elements, and my dreams of a goose fat fueled empire grew along with them.

But there were a few things I hadn’t accounted for. The first problem was that they became territorial bastards, harassing the chickens and anything else they thought they might be able to intimidate, including children. They were so good at finding clover they basically denuded a one acre patch of it. But it was slaughter day that really made me start to doubt. The killing was fine, but after that things went awry. I’d known that plucking a goose would be more involved than dealing with a chicken, since geese have three layers of dense, waterproof feathers, but my reading suggested that a little dish soap in the scald water would do the trick. It did not. Each bird took over an hour, and that was to get it to look like a poorly made pillow, the kind that is always leaking dozens of feathers right through the cloth.

That wasn’t the biggest problem. When, after months of patient husbandry, hours of finger numbing preparation, and fastidious cooking, I finally tried my first bite of goose, the flavor was depressing. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly good either. It tasted like duck, only a lot worse. I mean, it was something I’d eat in a pinch, but it wasn’t going to convert the masses. Likely it was the amount of forage in their diet - grain feeding almost always makes things a bit milder, and I’d never objected to goose in the past. Regardless, I haven’t raised one since, and I foresee none in my future.

There have been a couple farm implements - a backhoe attachment and an old haybine come to mind - that did not perform the way I’d imagined they would. If you’ve spent much time driving around rural America, you’ve probably passed some farms with about twenty tons of machinery strewn around the barnyard in various stages of decay. I imagine it happens with purchases like mine, things that seem useful or even necessary but then fail at their intended purpose. But somehow it seems reasonable to think that there could be a time when it would be good to have a spare mower around, even if it doesn’t cut well and makes an alarming rattle. Also, shipping a useless piece of equipment back to the auction, even if the financial hit isn’t too bad, is an admission of the supremacy of reality.

I don’t have a hard time letting go of machinery, so my farm is not in danger of becoming a junkyard, but dealing with animals is more difficult. The geese only had one year to waddle into my heart and my belly, and their efforts were so middling I couldn’t begin to convince myself that they deserved a permanent place.

But when I decided to start breeding cows exclusively for grassfed beef rather than grassfed dairy, I faced a hard choice in that I already had a herd that purported to be geared towards milk. Even if my Kerry cows were a lot meatier than a Holstein or Jersey, they were also a lot bonier than an Angus or Hereford. I had a choice to make - should I sell all of them and replace them with true beef cows, or should I bring in a beefier bull and slowly move my genetics in the desired direction by breeding?

Selling and replacing the entire herd would be the obvious choice, and in retrospect it’s what I probably should have done. But there was enough to like about the cows I had - their small frame size, their fine bones, the exceptional flavor of their beef - that I convinced myself they warranted keeping around. Finding and trucking replacements wouldn’t have been cheap, so it’s possible holding onto them was the right choice, but I would be lying if I said familiarity and sentiment didn’t play a significant role in my decision. I already thought of them as belonging on this farm, and I didn’t want to see them leave.

One unexpected benefit was that it helped me crystallize what I’ve come to think of as the fallacy of breeds, which I have come to view as a significant impediment to the way farmers - particularly small scale farmers like me - go about settling on what animals to acquire and how to manage them. While the mythologies that surround livestock breeds can’t compare to those of dogs for sheer dissonance (imagine a pack of show basset hounds coursing through thickets and ravines) they are nevertheless insidious. Understandably, heritage breeds can’t compete with Holsteins or factory hogs in sheer productivity, but they often rely on nebulous if not erroneous narratives to distinguish them from other members of their species.

I’m not suggesting they are meaningless. Though the extent varies widely from one breed to the next, each can be expected to maintain a certain uniformity of traits and appearance across generations, and an inbred sire, used for a terminal cross, can certainly throw consistently vigorous offspring. But often coat color or pattern, wattles or lack thereof, ear size, hoof shape, and brow concavity, though purely superficial, are used to determine which animals are selected to reproduce, rather than exclusively focusing on health and productivity. Indeed, beyond appearance, the breed specific information starts to sound remarkably similar. You don’t need to look through too much of the literature to start wondering how all of them can thrive on pasture, be exceptional mothers, have meat (or milk or wool) of superior quality, and be hearty and long-lived.

The subtext is that these traits are inherently linked to some sort of genetic purity and that any dilution of them will inevitably ruin the stock, while further concentration will improve it. The most dramatic form of this argument I’ve yet encountered was at a presentation by a man who suggested that all of us farmers in attendance already had exceptional genetics in our herds and that all we needed to do was concentrate them. Basically, he told us to pick the best bull (or raise a bull from our best cow) and inbreed the hell out of it. His justification was more biblical than scientific - to function properly our herds had to be proper patriarchies, with masculine bulls as their heads and feminine cows at their feet - and nowhere did he give an adequate explanation for why his method of breeding would not, at least in some cases, inexorably lead to the accrual of damaging recessive traits. Taking the best and having it reproduce without regard for diversity would always result in dramatic improvements.

Inbreeding, both this man and its more reasonable proponents are quick to point out, is responsible for every breed in existence, and there is no other method nearly so effective for concentrating desired traits. This is true, and I am not categorically opposed to its practice. I anticipate doing it myself in the coming years. But the idea that it can be practiced indefinitely without a cost strikes me as willfully naive. It doesn’t take an advanced understanding of genetics to recognize that things might go fine for ten or twenty or fifty years, but that consistent inbreeding will in most cases lead to an increase of negative traits. With how few members of many heritage breeds remain, keeping things pure often involves a dangerous level of genetic similarity.

But what bothers me even more than the mistrust or dismissal of science is the ethos behind it. I think many small farmers share my concern for diversity. I want diverse plant species in my pastures and diverse species of livestock eating them. I want woods and wildlife. I also want my animals to be healthy themselves, raise healthy offspring, and generally thrive in my management program, while maintaining enough diversity to not have many issues with negative recessives or herd-wide genetic susceptibility to certain illnesses. It strikes me as obvious that these should be a much higher priority than what color an animal is or whether it has straight or curly hair.

I am not opposed to the existence of breeds. Many of them have a long tradition, and they bring people joy, though I do think they should allow the correction of particularly prevalent flaws by the introduction of outside genetics. I cannot argue with the greater potential consistency of a purebred herd or the efficaciousness of using it for producing offspring that benefit from hybrid vigor. What I doubt is that a diverse farm benefits in the long term from only raising Mulefoot pigs or Kerry cows. The wager I am making is that, if I buy pigs or cows and keep the ones that do best in my management system, regardless of breed, they will produce reasonable number of offspring that also do well. Perhaps they’ll be less consistent than a fanatically inbred herd, but perhaps they will also have more robust (or at least more diverse) resistance to illness.

It’s hard to let something go, particularly when the market, however irrationally, attaches extra value to a pedigreed animal simply for coming with a piece of paper. Yet it’s worth asking if the prices rare breeds often command have any relationship to their value to a farmer who relies on selling meat or milk for a living. For my part, I love the idea of a breed, with a history stretching back through the centuries, with each generation selected for superior performance and health. But, though speaking as a relative novice, I have rarely seen this born out in reality. More often the idea of the ideal, sold with a good story (two thirds the milk on one third the feed!), is what fosters devotion.

The man who wanted to sell me the Miniature Jerseys was taken to court for animal abuse. In the years after I visited the already poor conditions in which he kept his dogs deteriorated further, and more than 130 dogs were removed from his care, but I’ve found nothing about the state of the cows. Both the kennel and the farm quickly resumed operation. This is an extreme case, but it confounds me that such a business could continue for year after year. Anyone who visited would see animals being raised solely from the names of their breeds, with neither the dogs nor the cows having an opportunity to prove their superior suitability for actual work.

So I return to this; for an animal to have a place on a farm it should fill a productive role, whether that is the production of milk or meat or eggs or fiber. It should be robust and suited to the management system. It should not be unduly aggressive to the other members of its herd or to humans. Its offspring should not have an excessive incidence of depressed fertility or immunity. All of these should come before its name.

- Garth

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