Stacey Stearns serves as the Agricultural Program Coordinator in the UConn Extension Service and in addition serves as the chairman of the Agriculture Commission for the Town of Mansfield, CT. In her latter role she coordinated a presentation by Jeanette Beranger, Senior Program Manager of the Livestock Conservancy, previously the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The meeting was held in April at the W.B. Young Building on the campus of the University of Connecticut.
Formed in 1977 the Conservancy’s primary mission is the preservation of rare breeds of livestock. Preventing the loss of recognized breeds from extinction has long been the highest priority of the organization. Breeds which do not meet the current demands of the marketplace can at some time in the future provide their unique characteristics. Genetic diversity can only be ensured if there is a sizable gene pool upon which to draw in the event it is needed.
Jeanette cited the Irish Potato famine of the 1840’s when almost every grower was raising the same variety and when a blight struck the results were devastating. A similar scenario is currently playing out in banana growing regions of the world. A resistant variety of banana called the Cavendish has provided relief to growers world-wide. Without diversity no relief would have been possible. Another condition emerging in the poultry industry is called wooden breast where the breast meat has a tough, chewy consistency.
Heritage breeds can be considered the multi-taskers of the livestock world. They are able, by virtue of their makeup, to do many things: work, milk, provide meat and lay eggs. A census of the many heritage breeds is ongoing in which some idea may be established as to their numbers; to determine how much at risk a given breed may be. For this reason the organization has chosen to establish categories each breed is placed which designates that breed’s risk factor. The most serious category is Critical. Next is Threatened, followed by Watch, Recovering and Study.
Member and non-member education constitutes a large part of what staff members do to further the work of the Conservancy. They work with breeders to provide guidance on conservation breeding, develop herd specific breeding plans, provide beginning farmers support and provide direct marketing training. For those forming new breed associations, guidance is provided in developing breed standards, registration practices, association practices and monitoring elections. To those who know little of the workings of the Conservancy there are staff who attempt to spread the word of its activities by providing exhibits and displays at fairs and expositions, and hold workshops. Assistance is provided to breed associations especially to those whose numbers are small and have much to gain by joining with others of similar size to increase efficiencies.
There are several organizations which complement the activities of the Conservancy including the USDA’s Multi Animal Germplasm Study. This study stores germplasm which can be retrieved in the event withdrawal is necessary. The SVF Foundation, located in Newport, RI, has been collecting embryos which are frozen and held in storage.
As to things which can be done at the local level there are ways anyone can help spread the word regarding the activities of the organization. First share information regarding the organization with others. Promote your breed at local fairs and other events. Provide workshops for veterans. Establish a program for schoolchildren to learn all about a particular species or breed and their care and management
Judy Wallen is a Director of the Conservancy who lives in Mansfield, CT with her husband Dr. Terry Wallen. Judy arranged for Jeanette to visit Devon Point Farm in Woodstock, a unique multi-faceted operation which raises Devon cattle among its other activities. The 90-acre farm is operated by Erick and Patty Taylor an ambitious couple whose range of activities seems to know no bounds.
The herd is grass fed year-round with a mineral block and water as the only additions. The pasture season runs from early April into late October with hay fed the remainder of the year. No hay is grown on the farm — it is all purchased. The fact all of the beef sold is grass fed is used as a marketing strategy.
Erik finds once a customer tries his product they are usually converted. Grass fed animals are considerably slower reaching market weight than those fed out in feed lots, on the order of 27 months. Butchering is done at a federally inspected slaughterhouse in Athol, MA.
The marketing strategy Erick employs is two-fold. First he has a small retail area in a beautiful barn devoted to sales where customers can come and pick up cuts from the selection available. Secondly he used his sales skills to convince a couple of local restaurateurs to feature native grass fed beef on their menus.
The breeding is scheduled so calving begins around the first of May so decent weather has hopefully arrived in Woodstock. All cows are bred naturally but there is some semen drawn from the farms bulls which is offered for sale. Calves surplus to the needs of the farm are sold at six months of age for an average price of $1,500.
The farm has two litters of pigs, both classified as threatened, which are pen raised with a good supply of seasonal vegetables. One breed is the Gloucestershire Old Spot and the other, of Amish origin, is the Red Wattle. Pork products are available in the fall as are chickens.
The farm has a sizeable vegetable operation with CSA making up a good part of the season’s sales. As of last year, over 200 families signed up to receive a weekly allotment of fresh vegetable during the growing season. Perhaps the most interesting program at Devon Point is the summer camp for kids. Each summer three groups of 15 children spend three weeks on the farm daily to learn as much as possible. The “Sprouts” — ages four to five — spend half a day while the older groups spend a day from 8:30 – 3:30.
At one point in time a local legend, Bob Joy, operated this farm as an orchard and remnants of the old orchard remain and the produce does not go to waste. The apples from the old trees are collected and made into cider in the fall.