While livestock were generally regional, small areas favoring one breed over another, we no longer rely on small farms and family homesteads for our food. We've outsourced responsibility for our meals to Big Ag, and the corporate structure of the industry is not interested in preserving a lot of little unique breeds, but rather prefers a homogeneous group of animals that mature at the same rate. This desire for sameness means most livestock- whether raised for beef, pork, milk, chicken, eggs, or turkey- has been bred so that the individual animals are genetically similar and bred for maximum production in a short time. This is a little-publicized weakness in our current food system, but one we should all be concerned with, as genetic similarity means all individuals are equally likely to suffer if there is an outbreak of disease or change in climate. One scary bug could wipe out the entire food population. This has already happened to some extent, although I read about it far more often in the agricultural newspaper than the general one. Remember when pork prices went sky high? That was because a nasty diarrhea-causing disease was killing baby pigs by the millions. Have you experienced egg shortages? You may have noticed lately that stores are out of eggs, or breakfast isn't being served all day as usual in some restaurant chains, and that prices of products with eggs (mayonnaise, cookies, etc) are higher than a few months before. This is because a nasty bird flu has killed over 48 million (yes, MILLION) egg laying chickens and meat-producing turkeys, either directly or as a result of exterminating every living bird in an affected flock to stop the spread. That's over 10% of the egg-laying population in the USA, and your Thanksgiving bird is likely going to be costlier than in the past. Having a diverse population of breeds of livestock means with any given disease or other stressor, some will thrive while others will not. We can't know ahead of time which breeds will have the genetic keys to overcoming the next superbug, so even if you don't personally care about weird-looking chickens or piggies that aren't pink, your future breakfasts may depend on endangered breeds you've never heard of!
But, you may wonder, as someone who is not a farmer, how can I help? One of the craziest things to wrap your head around is that to save endangered breeds, eat them. What? How can killing rare things for their meat possibly be a GOOD thing? Well, as a farmer I need to make money to keep farming. If my customers are willing to pay a little more for Dexter beef or Large Black pork, it gives me an incentive to raise them, breed them, and keep them in their native habitat- a family farm.
Another thing anyone can do is to join the non-profit organization The Livestock Conservancy, which is dedicated to supporting farmers and saving rare breeds. They also maintain a yearly list of breeds in danger, and rank them by population as to how close to extinction they may be. A breed listed as critical has less than 200 new members being added to the breed registries in a year- that isn't many new babies!
And for those of you thinking about being a little more self-sufficient, thinking about making the leap into livestock, consider a heritage breed. The variety is incredible, so whether you're looking for a couple backyard laying hens or a goat to milk, there is likely a heritage breed right for you. And, speaking from my own personal experience, it's rewarding to steward animals regardless, but to care for critters who are in danger of vanishing from the Earth forever, it is even more so. I can't directly save the polar bears or African lions, but every time I have baby Silver Fox bunnies born, or a Dexter calf comes into the world, or I rescue a Morgan mare from slaughter, or pull downy Bourbon Red turkey poults and fluffy Delaware chicks from the incubator, I am literally helping to steward these wonderful animals and birds into the future- for the security of our food supply, to pass on to future generations of farmers, and just to do my small part to keep things beautiful, wonderful and rare around because they have intrinsic value as creatures of the earth. .