In the realm of animal breeding there is a lot of discussion and indeed disagreement over the quest for diversity and the use of concentration in breeding programs. I would propose that both have their place.

As a founding director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and one of the two researchers that surveyed the American Milking Devon in 1977 and encouraged creation of the American Milking Devon Association, I feel qualified to speak to the importance of diversity. All breeds, subsets of breeds and landrace breeds are important to preserve. I think we all agreed that diversity is healthy and if we look at nature, we see that the eco systems that are the most diverse are also the most robust and stable. There is something healthy about diversity. In terms of markets, diversity is critical since markets change and it is hard (read it takes a long time) to change breeds.

Three good examples of breeds that disappeared or were revived by market pressure are the Curly Coated Pig, the Texas Longhorn, and the North Devon:

  1. The Lincolnhire Curly Coated Pig, a really fat pig, was quite popular in a time when lard and animal fat had a very important economic role. Animal fat was used as industrial oil as well as cooking oil. When these market needs changed this breed actually died out in 1972 and is today extinct.

  2. In the case of the Texas Longhorn, www.tlbaa.org, this was a breed that had dwindled to a perilously small population in the 1960s in this country. In its’ hey-day who knows how many millions of these cattle existed. In the 1960s, when the trend away from fat cattle began -when folks began to look for lean and hardy cattle- there were only a few thousand. At that time, the Texas Longhorn was “rediscovered” and returned to serious popularity with many registrations and many, many crossbred cattle as a direct result of market pressure.

  3. Another success story is the North Devon, this breed was included on the ALBC Conservation Priority list as “critical” as recently as 1997. Now this breed is enjoying a remarkable resurgence because it addresses the consumer’s demand for fat, 100% grass-finished beef (www.northamericandevon.com ). It was always noted as the butcher’s breed and fell by the wayside in the last 40 years because it is “too-easy fleshing” for the feedlot system that has evolved in this country. If your production modality is grass, then an early, maturing breed that fattens easily on grass and delivers an excellent meat to bone ratio is very desirable.

Preservation of diverse, heritage, minor, and regional breeds of livestock is a critically important job and I commend ALBC (www.albc.org) and its’ dedicated staff for the job they have done in the past 30 years. It is essential to the health and vibrancy of our agricultural potential. Who knows what the next “market need’ will be? Hopefully ALBC and other similar organizations around the world will have successfully preserved breeds that will meet the need.

Preservation of diversity with in the breed also makes the most sense in terms of keeping as many options as possible open.

On the other hand, when farmers begin to bring product to consumers, they find that the consumer would like to have a similar product each time they buy. In other words, if the customer buys a fat, tender steak this week, they will clearly be disappointed if next week they get a lean, tough steak. Variability and diversity are a problem in the market place. One can argue that differences are valued in the market place and I would agree; a quick trip to NYC will acquaint you with the diversity of the market, for instance, in the live animal markets in the Bronx a very skinny, intact, billy goat will bring the highest price, some markets want lean (Laura’s lean beef www.laurasleanbeef.com ) some markets want fat, prime steak (Lobels of Madison Ave, NYC www.lobels.com)

The challenge for the producer to make a sustainable living with livestock products is finding their niche and then learning how to make the consumer’s experience repeatable. If your customer wants fat and you bring lean, they will be disappointed. So the question becomes, how do producers create a repeatable quality in their live stock?

Selection and Concentration are the options:

A producer can evaluate all their animals at harvest time and then only harvest the animals that fit their customer’s needs and then sell the rest to the commodity market. Many programs have been based on this methodology-for instance using ultrasound to scan live cattle to determine eligibility. The cattle industry sorts for quality once the cattle are slaughtered and the carcasses can be evaluated by a USDA grader. Most small to medium size cattle operations cannot afford a grader and definitely cannot afford to “discard” or sell for a low price part of their annual harvest.

The other option is to concentrate the desirable qualities of your livestock and have less variability and more repeatability. One of the best ways to do this is to breed close. Many folks today talk about line breeding or inbreeding (“line breeding is if it works and inbreeding is if it doesn’t” is the joke) and feel this is a good thing. The only thing line breeding or inbreeding will do is concentrate genes. It will concentrate good genes or bad genes. In other words, if you have a terrible udder and you inbreed you will fix this trait. On the other hand, if you have excellent conformation, great meat quality and tenderness you can fix these traits. Line breeding includes breeding close relatives and is seen by much of the livestock industry as a heretical practice although it has been used as a tool for years in horse breeding and dog breeding. It must be paired with merciless culling; in other words the resulting offspring must be evaluated and culled if they show a problem.

Robert Bakewell, the famous animal breeder and man we named our genetics company after www.bakewellrepro.com, summed it up this way: “breed the best to the best irregardless of the relationship”. His stunning results are quite well known. Remember, he had a large diverse pool of livestock to begin his selection from and then he put his masterful plan to work concentrating characteristics he and the market desired. He created very pre-potent sires as a result and was able to produce large numbers of animals with very similar, desirable qualities.

Today we find that concentration is almost totally lacking in the cattle industry because of fears of inbreeding repression and the possible resulting problems. My response to this worry or criticism is to cull mercilessly and eat the problems. The promotion of hybrid vigor by the industry and university system has created a situation where the great majority of commercial cattle are crossbred. Even some notable breeds like the Angus include a lot of crossbred, F1, or upgraded animal. Most breeds have become very diverse and have squandered the qualities of repeatability and indeed quality.

Pre-potency is critical to the success of a sustainable livestock industry whether it is big farms or small. Prepotency, the ability of a sire to pass his qualities to all his offspring, is very rare today. It is only accomplished by concentration either intentionally or unwittingly. Repeatability is a tool the producer needs to make a living with cattle.

In conclusion, it is important to keep and maintain all breeds, subsets of breeds and landrace breeds and I applaud the efforts of those who are involved in this missionary type work. On the other hand, there is an important place for concentration of breeds and subsets of breeds to create truly pre-potent sires that can produce “cookie cutter” offspring. Concentration and diversity should not be competing endeavors but both should be embraced by all as being necessary for our agricultural future.