Staff networks with other heritage breed experts at international conference

There are only about 40 English Longhorn cattle, like the ones at Conner Prairie, in the U.S.

By Ephraim Rudolph

Three of Conner Prairie’s agricultural staff members recently attended the Livestock Conservancy’s 2017 Heritage Livestock Conference at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Agriculturalists interested in heritage breed animals traveled from all corners of the world to attend.

The working farm and agriculture experience at the museum boasts a number of rare heritage breed animals, including Ossabaw Island hogs, Arapawa goats, Tunis sheep and English Longhorn cattle. The Livestock Conservancy tracks the health and population levels of rare species like these, and measures their endangered status on a five-point scale from “study” to “critically endangered.”

Conner Prairie’s Arapawa goats and Ossabaw Island hogs are at the critically endangered status while the slightly less-endangered Tunis sheep are at a mid-level watch status. “They’re still on the endangered list, but they’ve hit bottom and since been recovered, which is a great sign,” said Livestock Manager Kevyn Miller, who attended the conference with livestock interpreters Stephanie Buchanan and Emily Nyman.

Conner Prairie’s Ossabaw Island hogs are critically endangered, according to the Livestock Conservancy.

The rarest of all are the English Longhorn cattle. “We’re hoping to get them to critically endangered status,” Miller said. “There are a few qualifying factors, but basically it’s for species with fewer than 1,000 to 2,000 in existence. There are only about 40 English Longhorns in the U.S., so they don’t even make the list.”

As handlers of one of America’s largest stocks of these rare breeds, Miller (left), Buchanan, and Nyman were excited to engage with other heritage breed experts at the conference.

“The networking that we were able to participate in amongst the other breeders was invaluable,” Miller said. “We met people face-to-face who we’d only talked to on the phone, written emails back and forth with, or read articles by.”

Marketing and selling heritage breed animals to the food industry and to other breeders is an integral component of running a heritage-focused farm.

“Practically speaking, we need to find a use for these breeds, or there really is no reason to bring them back from the verge of extinction,” Miller said. “Our safety net is the historical significance of these breeds. They’re as close as we can get to the livestock that was really here in the 1830s. We can raise them with that as our basis but we still need to find a job for them to do; whether that’s in food, or in research, like the insulin resistance research that is being done with the Ossabaw hogs.”

Conner Prairie’s Arapawa goats are also on the Livestock Conservancy’s critically endangered list.

Miller was very interested in some of the innovative agricultural marketing tactics shared by conference panelists. Marketing panels offered new perspectives on how to sell heritage breeds. Some attendees came from large farms and livestock enterprises, and had unique approaches for selling animals.

“We’re selling some feeder Ossabaw hogs to a man who supplies heritage breed pork to about 30 different restaurants.” Miller said.

Miller’s favorite panel at the event was a presentation by Jeremy Engh on grass-based heritage cattle genetics. “He had marketed several thousand head of a breed that had been essentially lost, just by finding a niche with the grass-fed market,” Miller said. “People will pay more for a grass-fed steak because of the health benefits and the flavor. Engh has been very successful with the grass-fed strategy, and we picked up a lot of ideas from his panel.”

Networking at the Heritage Livestock Conference isn’t just important for agriculturalists. It’s also essential to the health and future of heritage breeds themselves. Building business relationships, with the goal of selling heritage animals to other breeders, helps get animals into other states and other herds.

“The more places we put these animals, the better off they are,” Miller said.

In the case of the particularly rare English Longhorn cattle’s population in the U.S., Miller said there used to be only one herd in Virginia.

Tunis sheep at Conner Prairie are at a mid-level watch status, according to the Livestock Conservancy.

“If a disease outbreak had hit that county and wiped that herd out, the whole breed could have been lost,” he said. “That’s how we were able to convince the herd owner to sell a few of them to Conner Prairie. Since then, he’s also sent some to Missouri. Now there are only three herds of English Longhorn cattle in America, and that third one in Missouri just started this year.”

Those small American populations of English Longhorn cattle do, however, have some international support.

Nyman said that she contacted an Australian agriculturalist who sources English Longhorn genetic material from the same place as Conner Prairie: Blackbrook Longhorns, in Leicestershire, England.

“He does a lot of charcuterie and butchering for himself, and it was great to learn that he was raising another English Longhorn herd in Australia,” Nyman said. “His Longhorns are grass-fed, and understanding how he processes the meat is helping me figure out what we will do with our Longhorns.”

The Heritage Livestock Conference is held in a different location each year, usually at a farm specializing in heritage breeds or at a living history museum. Next year, the conference will be hosted by Conner Prairie.