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Mountain Home Magazine

The Importance of Good Breeding

Jun 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow

This is what we’re trying to preserve,” says Nicki Seeler, who raises Shetland sheep in Belfast, New York. She’s holding up a cream-colored tuft of raw wool. It’s not been washed or carded or spun or processed in any way, but it’s soft enough to diaper a baby. Go ahead, rub it on your cheek. You’ll revel in the texture, maybe wish for it to be made into something you could wear right against your skin. “That’s the genetics we want to keep. We don’t want to lose this.” And that’s part of what heritage sheep breeds are all about.

Extrapolate that to other livestock and poultry—cattle, horses, chickens, pigs, ducks—and you get the idea. The animals our forbearers raised for food and fiber and work were of a different ilk than the mass-produced animals of today. We have an industrial food production system. Uniformity is the buzzword, the maxim, the necessity, the requirement when you’re propagating, feeding, butchering, and processing thousands of animals on an assembly line system.

Heritage breeds, with their genetic diversity and inherent adaptability, aren’t suited to that system. They belong in small, more traditional farming practices. In fact, they are one antidote to the industrial food system.

Biodiversity Is Not a Dirty Word

Biodiversity refers to all the variety of life on Earth, everywhere, from the oceans to your own backyard. It’s the interactions, the ecosystems, and the genetic information. Biodiversity varies naturally from place to place—think rainforest v. desert. Sometimes those variations are related to human activity.

Despite there being millions of known species of living things, everything from fungus to polar bears, and likely millions more that are unknown, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, a list of species conservation status, agrees with other major studies that biodiversity is declining. It says more than 44,000 species are threatened with extinction. “Major direct threats to biodiversity include habitat loss and fragmentation, unsustainable resource use, invasive species, pollution, and global climate change,” according to the American Museum of Natural History.

Ecosystems that are rich in diversity are better able to handle stressors such as disease, fires, or climate change. And not just wild places, but also our rural land with its farms and homesteads.

The Livestock Conservancy

The North Carolina-based Livestock Conservancy ( does just what its name suggests. The mission statement is simple: Protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction. Over 150 breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, donkeys, chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, goats, and the accompanying genetic diversity of those animals are included in that goal. Since the Livestock Conservancy’s inception in 1977 in Vermont as the American Minor Breeds Conservancy, it has not lost a breed listed on its Conservation Priority List.

“No biodiversity means trouble,” says Jeannette Beranger, a senior program manager at the Conservancy. “If there is no biodiversity, there is nothing to fall back on.” Losing breeds means losing genetic diversity.

“What’s really important is that if we lose a breed, we can’t recreate them,” says Charlene Couch, PhD, also a senior program manager at the Conservancy. She cites the Spanish goat as a breed with a “super-long history” of more than 500 years in this country. They are used for meat, dairy, and some for fiber—cashmere—and, early on, were vital parts of subsistence farming in the new world. They’re hardy, adaptable, disease tolerant, and the does are good moms. The foundation stock originally came from the Mediterranean, and “what was used to produce that breed no longer exists.” It’s a global genetic resource now unique to the US.

“We have a great population here,” Charlene continues, “so if we were to lose that it’s really truly gone.” She doesn’t think heritage breeds are going to take over commercial production, but they have important roles to play. Say swine disease or bird flu decimates a portion of the animals in the commercial sector. “We have animals in the heritage breeds that could step in,” she explains. “You don’t know what you’re going to need. What makes them valuable and important is that they’re living in their traditional environments and doing very well. We really want to see breeders and the breeds that are consistent with their historic purpose and performing in the systems where they do best.”

Jeannette says, “The message is there is a breed out there that will be a perfect breed for your farm. If you want to be a breeder, then what you’re doing is providing a market for those animals and sales opportunities for the people [who raise them].”

The Beltie

At Patterson Farms, just outside of Sabinsville, Pennsylvania, a herd of Belted Galloway cattle dot the hillside pastures. It’s agricultural eye candy without a doubt—those distinctive white belts around the middle contrast with the black and dun of the animals’ fore and aft, and it’s all set against a brilliant green backdrop.

“We chose them because they are unique,” says Terry Patterson, who owns and operates the farm with his wife, Terri. “And the more we had them, the more we liked them. They’re very hardy.”

Patterson Farms is not only the largest producer of maple syrup in Pennsylvania, but is also home to the largest herd of Belties, as they’re affectionately known, in the state—about 120.

Terry and Terri are the fourth generation to be farming on the family acres, though the first to be in the Beltie business. They had lived downstate for some years and, during that time, Terry’s dad, who was farming here in Tioga County, had sold his herd of Holsteins. Terry got a call from a man who wanted to board his Belties on the Patterson pastures.

“We’d get heifers in payment, so that’s how we got started,” he says. They built their herd while still living downstate but came home to Tioga County after Terry’s father died. The herd, moved in two trips of two tractor trailer loads each, came in 2018.

“We needed something,” Terry continues. “We have over sixty acres of pasture, and it’s marginal for crops.”

Those acres are perfect for this breed of cattle, however.

The ancestors of the Belted Galloways grazing on Patterson pastures came from the rugged, seacoast area of southwest Scotland, where they foraged on upland pastures and moorland. The earliest records indicate they were developed in the sixteenth century, but a type of the breed may have been in existence as early as the eleventh century. The first recorded importation of Belted Galloway stock to the US was in 1939. The Beltie comes with a double layer of hair rather than a layer of fat, so, while the meat is leaner than that of other breeds of beef cattle, the animals can better tolerate cold temperatures. Terry explains that when the weather gets bad, they bring the cattle in from the pastures to spend time on bedding packs and have access to shelter. In the spring, the bedding packs are moved into large piles, where they eventually decompose into rich compost.

Belted Galloways are the proverbial easy keepers. Moms calve in the pasture in March, and, as Terry notes, “it’s where we can see [what’s going on] when we’re there with the trucks for sugaring.” When the little ones are big enough to gallivant on their own a bit, he says it’s fun to watch them running across the hillsides. The adults respect the fences. They’re very alert, so predators are not a big problem. They’re not skittish. The moms take good care of the youngsters—sometimes one adult cow is designated the nanny and keeps an eye on several kids while the other moms graze in peace. They’re polled (no horns), and they’re not fussy eaters, but they do grow slower than commercial breeds.

“We do occasionally cross with Angus and Herefords, but this is predominately a purebred herd,” Terry says. There is a bull, sometimes two, on the premises, as “AI [artificial insemination] doesn’t fit our schedule.”

The finished product is tender, with marbling, and they sell quite a bit of it. “We don’t finish on grain,” says Terry. “We have nothing against it, but we don’t do it.”

The Livestock Conservancy lists the breed as “recovering.”

A Little Sheepish

“They say Henry VIII would only wear socks from Shetland wool,” says Nicki Seeler. If you’ve ever felt Shetland wool, you know why. It’s unbelievably soft.

“I’ve always wanted to learn to spin—since I was a little girl,” Nicki says. And she wanted sheep.

“I did the research,” she says, and decided on the short-tailed Shetlands. “I did not want to dock tails. They are friendly. They don’t eat a lot of grain. They’re easy lambers.”

Well, most times. Marian, one of Nicki’s Shetland ewes, had some trouble with her twins, Willow and New Moon. Both went into the birth canal at the same time, Nicki explains. Willow’s head and legs had pushed New Moon up against Marian’s pubic bone. She eventually delivered the babies, with help from Nicki, who says “I won’t breed her again.”

“She’s a darn good ewe. I love her fleece. It’s exquisite. She’ll be a fiber-only ewe now—she’s a very soft sheep.”

The Shetlands are an archipelago of about 300 islands, many uninhabited, off Scotland’s northeast coast. The sheep of the same name are small, fine-boned, hardy, slow-growing, and long-lived, and are descendants of the Northern European short-tailed sheep, traditional breeds that were believed to be some of the first sheep brought to Europe by early farmers.

Their more recent ancestors probably came from Scandinavia as long as 1,000 years ago—Norway is only about 140 miles east of the Shetlands Islands, so it’s probable that Vikings were regular visitors. Shetlands are believed to be a type of Scottish Dunface, a breed now extinct. Up to the Iron Age, about 1200 BC to 550 BC, most sheep in the British Isles were small and short-tailed, and the males had spiral horns. The ewes are usually polled. These short-tailed sheep, for reasons not clear, were eventually displaced by longer-tailed breeds, and ended up in less-accessible areas like the Shetlands. Historically they were not exported, though Thomas Jefferson kept a small flock of them. Most of the breed now in North America descended from a 1980 importation of thirty-two animals into Canada. While they’re used as meat sheep, they’ve always been prized for their fleece. Shetlands are “dual coated,” which describes their coats of long, strong outer fibers and a soft, light undercoat. Cora, another of Nicki’s ewes, has a comfort factor rating of almost 90 percent. Comfort factor, Nicki explains, is a measure of how soft the fleece feels. Texas A&M University (check it out at does the rating. With the wool from her flock of twenty, she makes mostly hats and mittens.

When she’s talking about the sheep, she stresses the importance of genetic diversity and “saving the old-world genetics.” She keeps two rams, but she’s also a proponent of AI to “have a healthy gene pool.” Most of her lamb customers want them for pets, and they make good ones. The members of her flock are great examples. They’re curious, some love to have their heads scratched, and they’re happy to come up to newcomers for a bit of interaction.

She mentions that Shetlands would be an ideal breed for grazing on large solar farms, eliminating or reducing the need for mowing or using chemicals on the foliage. Unfortunately, she says, there isn’t a market for that much wool. Yet.

The Livestock Conservancy lists Shetlands as “recovering.”

DIY Chicks

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of having a backyard chicken flock knows chickens are pretty smart about some things. They know to duck and cover when a hawk flies over. (Smarter than ducks who don’t know when to chicken and cover.) They know there are sunflower seeds under the birdfeeder up by the driveway. They know when it’s time to go back into the coop at the end of the day. My rooster searches the yard for tasty bits of whatevers on the hens’ behalf. When he finds something, he makes a few clucks, and the hens come running. During one outing, the girls were busy with something they had found on their own and were ignoring him. I watched him pick up a sliver of apple core I’d tossed out, or maybe it was a chunk of bread, take it over to them, drop it, and speak his piece. Clearly it was, “Hey, over here is the good stuff I found for you. Come on.” They did. It’s his job to watch out for them, and he takes it seriously.

De-beaked chickens in a building with a few thousand other chickens aren’t bred to know how to take care of themselves. They’re bred to lay eggs as quickly as possible, or to grow at an unnaturally fast rate. They’re prone to disease, so they need lots of medication. I’ve always had a mixed flock with some heritage breeds—Dominiques, Australorps, and Orpingtons—and some hens have lived for six or seven years. Commercially raised chickens don’t last nearly that long, and why would they want to? A poultry barn is not a nice place for chickens to live.

And while it’s true that not all consumers want what heritage breeds have to offer, Jeannette feels somewhat positive about the resurgence of small farms stocked with tradition.

“There are more people raising their own food, and there is a tremendous interest in chickens, sheep, and wool,” she says. “We call them victory gardens on four feet.”

And sometimes two feet. She cites San Diego’s Presidio dig, which unearthed, among other things, chicken bones. Domestic-type chicken bones. The theory is that between 1769 and 1835, domestic chickens provided an important source of protein for the early European residents of what would become California.

“Chickens can save the world,” says Jeannette.

They might need a little help with the infrastructure and staffing, though. Even pre-covid, there was a shortage of local slaughter, butchering, and processing facilities, especially those that can accommodate the variations in size and availability that go with animals raised in a natural environment. (Go to to read the April 26, 2019, article on the need for local meat processors.) There are several types of federal and/or state inspection options for meat processors, and some are easier for small producers to deal with. It depends on where and to whom you want to sell meat. But don’t let the red tape stop you. After all, if you breed it, they will come.

While Nicki’s Shetland sheep are “not your father’s” sheep, as the advertising catchphrase goes, they may have been your grandfather’s or your great-grandfather’s. And think how the fiber and food from lots of little farms with Shetland sheep or Galloway cattle or a few heritage chickens might help sustain communities. Think of the processing facilities and retail opportunities that might spring up to accommodate those small operations. Our heritage and our collective prosperities were once linked with those breeds, and they could be again.

And, really, for the entertainment value, there’s nothing quite like a backyard of chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys...Well, you get the picture.

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