Barnyard rarities get their day in sun at Beltsville show Group tries to preserve vanishing U.S. breeds

September 14, 1991|By Doug Birch

BELTSVILLE -- They aren't making farm animals like they used to, and that worries R. John Dawes.

The Baltimore native, who owns Huntingdon Farm in Alexandria, Pa., raises Angus beef cattle for a living. But, like a small number of other farmers, he also keeps a herd of the far more exotic Milking Shorthorn cattle, one of about 100 American livestock breeds threatened with extinction.

Mr. Dawes fears that the loss of these endangered breeds would hurt America's rich farm heritage and would mean the disappearance of the barnyard's genetic diversity. That diversity, he said, might someday be needed to create resistant animals if some virulent disease were to sweep through a popular breed or if climate changes made it difficult for existing animals to thrive on rangeland and farms.

Mr. Dawes justifies the expense of raising the rare dairy cows by implanting Angus embryos in them and using them as surrogate mothers for hisbeef business. But he understands why most farmers in his area concentrate on a few popular types of cattle, chickens, pigs, goats and sheep. Those are the livestock, generally, that produce meat, milk and wool most quickly.

"I think that farmers are more sensitive to environmental issues than you'd give them credit for," he said. "But they're under such enormous economic pressure to meet these quotas, in terms of milk produced and pounds of beef and pounds of wings, they don't have time to address this issue."

In 1976 Mr. Dawes joined the Minor Breeds Conservancy, a North Carolina-based group devoted to preserving endangered farm animals. To help publicize the conservancy's work, he organized an art show that opened yesterday at the National Agricultural Library here.

The exhibit moves to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown Nov. 20 and later to University Park, Pa., and Pittsburgh.

On a knoll outside the library, exhibit organizers set up steel pens and filled them with endangered or just unusual livestock.

A spunky Ossobaw Island Hog -- a feral breed that developed from pigs released by Spanish sailors on an island off Georgia three centuries ago -- escaped from her pen and scampered into a copse of pine. It took a posse to corner the panting black-and-white sow and cage her again.

Donald E. Bixby, a veterinarian and director of the Minor Breeds Conservancy, said that when family farms dominated rural America, farmers raised a wide variety of livestock, many of them hardy breeds well adapted to their environments. Living in the arid Southwest, Texas Longhorn cattle have adapted to tolerate high levels of calcium in their food, he said. Florida Cracker cattle of the Southeast adapted to the mineral-poor soils there.

Minor breeds were also well suited to the nearly self-sufficient family farm, he said, because they generally don't need grain in their diet, birth easily, nurture their young and are disease-resistant. But, he conceded, they generally don't grow and reproduce as quickly as more popular breeds.

As factory farms came to dominate American agriculture, economic pressures forced farmers to buy only the most productive breeds. Leghorn hens dominate the egg industry. Holstein cows are so good at producing milk, Dr. Bixby said, "that's practically all we have now" in the dairy industry.

As a result, about half of all American livestock breeds have dwindled to the point where they are in danger of disappearing.

Dr. Bixby said a number of breeds may have vanished without much notice. But the demise of at least two has been documented: the Neopolitan hog and the Lincolnshire Curly Coat pig. The last Curly Coat, he said, was butchered in 1972.

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