Monday, December 03, 2007

Purebreed Livestock or Not...

Lately as I have been my family and I have been thinking about adding livestock to the farm, other than the cattle or horses, I have been pondering the idea of having purebred herds or just grade market herds. If you have been following the blog for awhile you will remember that we are specifically thinking about adding hogs or sheep in the not to distant future. But, should we try and go with purebred breed or just a market/grade/crossbreed?

Right now we are somewhat locked into purebreds with our Dexters. We now have nine registered cows/heifers and are in the process of looking for a herd bull so it is important to me that our bull is registered also. I don't think it would be wise to crossbreed the Dexters that we have now, but we could always try and go another route in the future. But, I like the direction that the Dexters will take us and I love the many great aspects of the specific breed ... for the time being we will only have a purebred registered cattle herd.

I know that Joel Salatin and some of the other authors along his lines (Allan Nation, Gene Logsdon, etc.) would probably advise having crossbred or grade livestock rather than registered purebred animals for a few reasons. One of those factors might be plain old cost, but another and possibly more interesting factor is the idea of "hybrid vigor" or heterosis. Basically the idea of hybrid vigor is that if you cross two distinct breeds you will gain the best of those two specific breeds. There is a whole genetic basis for this and all sorts of good smart people facts and figures on the topic so I suggest you check the link above for a basic overview of the topic.

Also, if you would like to know more about crossbreeding systems or other reasons for having a crossbreeding program I encourage you to check out this LINK from Virginia Tech University. It gives some great information and goes into greater detail.

While I find the whole heterosis idea interesting the financial thing does speak very loudly to me. Most of the time you will have to pay a greater price to have the registered animals. Thus it will take more money, and in my case a longer time, to build up the herd to the size you would like. I intend on having a closed herd once we have built it up, but it does take outside animals to get to that point. As we look at sheep and hogs the higher prices do seem a bit daunting ... especially when we are talking about edible animals. Most people don't care if they are eating a Dexter burger, Angus burger, or whatever the steers parentage is burger (notice I said most people because I think Dexter burgers are the best!). With that in mind it is difficult to go the purebred route (again, I realize that I already have gone that route).

One thing really keeps drawing me to the registered livestock side of things though ... heritage breeds. History is my passion and keeping history alive is equally part of that passion so I have been drawn to the heritage breeds from the beginning. I have a couple of thoughts that I will just through out there about these breeds... First of all, I think it is important to keep these breeds going because they are an important part of our human history and a link to that history. If we don't remember our history ... well, that is just a bad thing! But, it is also important I believe to remember that these heritage breeds were developed and raised under the exact (or close to it) conditions that I wish to farm within. Many were selected (all breeds are crossbreeds at some point) because they were good foragers, were hardy, easy breeders, good mothers, and on and on and on. So, if it worked then I don't see why it can't work today.

I still haven't decided which direction to go, but it is an interesting debate in my mind nonetheless.

**The picture at the top is of an Ossabaw Island Pig at the Living History Farms in Iowa. They have them at the Living History Farms because they are similar to what an 1850's pig would look like**


IluvABbeef said...

There are a lot of things to think about when deciding whether to have purebreds or crossbreds on your farm: what sort of market are you wanting to go into (selling privately or to the outside market), are you willing to go the extra mile to promote your breed of interest, etc.

With a crossbred herd you might have to think about whether you're wanting to follow a crossbreeding plan (though I'm not sure if folks do follow this sort of management with swine or sheep); I've calculated and done some work figgering out a crossbreeding plan for cattle (a two-way cross), and it is pretty hectic. BUT, you get animals with better longetivity, carcass quality, etc. (like you just mentioned).

Whereas with a purebred herd, yeah you have the extra cost of paying a fee for every animal born to be registered in an organization of interest, and enter into shows to promote yourself and your breed, at least you don't have to have to go to the extent of planning out a crossbreeding regime.

I guess it all depends on what you want to achieve, what your interested in, things like that.

Tim Young said...


Good question. I debated this back and forth earlier this year before I made my decisions for Nature's Harmony Farm. As you said, you can realize tremendous benefits through heterosis by crossing dominant/desired characteristics of different animals. This can be a great approach for people that are very interested in productivity, which is what Joel Salatin speaks a lot about.

In the end, I made a decision to go registered purebreed. For cows, after considerable research, I selected Murray Grey as the herd. You can read my reasons on posts I made here Our First Cows, and see pictures of our cows that just arrived last weekend on this post. We're the only breeder of Murray Grey's in Georgia, which gives us an element of differentiation. Also, we now have two income options at our disposal; processing culls for grass fed beef OR selling them to others who want the MG genetics in their herd (perhaps for hybrid vigor). We'll probably keep the best of the group to build up our herd, but with the bull calfs, we may sell the great ones to others to help their herd.

In the end, I felt the benefit of having two different income paths (grass fed beef and purebred cattle) was the right choice for us. For pigs, we did the same thing, and went with Ossabaw Pigs and Berkshire Pigs.

Good luck with your choice!

Tim Young
Nature's Harmony Farm
Elberton, GA

Ethan Book said...

Good points! iluvabbeef I think you brought up a point that relates to the reason that I ended up on the Dexters. I do not plan on selling to the market so I thought I could get something different, and like Tim mentioned there are a couple possible markets.

Tim, thanks for the links to your posts. Pretty interesting stuff! I know that my uncle (years ago) had some Ossabaws that he was crossing with other hogs for the benefits of the hybrid vigor. It worked well, but then he decided to get out of hogs and into dairy. I may have to try and tap him for some knowledge.

sugarcreekfarm said...

We started out with a purebred Large Black boar and a York/Duroc/?? cross gilt. That was some good pork!

I decided I wanted to then go with Chester White gilts, and I really wanted to cross them to Large Black. But our boar was too big for gilts, and it was too costly to go to Indiana and get a new one.

So we ended up with a Berk boar. We're happy with that cross, but we both think that the LB cross was better. If we had any sort of decent facilities for raising hogs on this farm I would start a LB herd and sell breeding stock, and also crossbreed with Chesters for meat to sell. Maybe someday!

Yeoman said...

I don't know anything about pigs, only cattle, so perhaps I should abstain.

However, here one thing I would do is look at what markets well, in terms of return. It might surprise you. Most cattlemen around here now raise Black Baldies, as they market well and give a good return. There might very well be no solid reason why these cattle sell better than others (although I suspect there are some) but its what the buyers want in a cow calf operation.

I often notice that folks who leap into cattle with no background will go for a "classic", or even exotic, breed. But when they go to sell, they suffer as a result.

Ethan Book said...

Sugar Creek - You do bring up a good point there. One thing about the heritage breeds or minor breeds is that they can be difficult to find and expensive to haul in to the farm. That can be a limiting factor on what you end up raising unless like you said you are going to spend the big money to raise seedstock.

Yeoman - I guess it depends on where you are going to sell you livestock. Are you going to sell to the commercial market, are you going to sell to the seedstock people, or are you going to create your own direct to the customer market. For me the reason I decided to go with Dexters is because I plan on starting my herd slowly and building my market ... along the way I can sell seedstock, although I won't get the high dollar prices. The Dexters represented things that I believed would be marketable to people wanting to buy directly from the farmer ... especially when talking about grass fed which is what we are doing. That being said I believe the people with small hobby farms do end up with registered this or that and then have a difficult time selling them because if you are going to sell those registered animals at the purebred premiums you have to play the game ... become active in the breed association, go to the shows, talk the talk and walk the walk ...

Yeoman said...

"Yeoman - I guess it depends on where you are going to sell you livestock"

That's no doubt true, and gets back to the local nature of agriculture. In my area, the cattle buyers and the sale barns are the only game in town. There's not much of any other kind of market, other than the few head I sell to folks who want a beef or half a beef.

Of course, having said that, perhaps I simply don't appreciate the potential for another market. I really ought to look in to it.

Walter Jeffries said...

We went with mixed breed. I selected for the characteristics we wanted in the starter animals, looking at them and their mothers. Pigs in our case. Then each generation we pick the best of the best to keep for breeding thus gradually improving our line. Pigs are great for this because they are so genetically plastic, grow so rapidly, mature early, have large litters and can easily farrow twice a year or more. The less than perfect are culled to the table.

Yeoman said...

The opportunities for pigs in local markets is interesting. One of my wife's uncles started a pig raising operation last year, in addition to his farming operations. We bought one from them. What a difference between a small farm raised pig and a supermarket raised one. The farm pig is so much better, it's unbelievable.

Of course, I have the same reaction on beef. We've been eating our own beef for years. On the odd occasions I have store bought beef, or restaurant beef, it's really disappointing.

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman - Saying the taste is so much better is almost an understatement. I can't wait to start raising our own pork so I can get my hands on that tasty food. Since I've had some small farm raised Berkshire bacon I have hardly had any store bought bacon because it is so bad! Oh, and the hams...

Yeoman said...

"Yeoman - Saying the taste is so much better is almost an understatement. I can't wait to start raising our own pork so I can get my hands on that tasty food. Since I've had some small farm raised Berkshire bacon I have hardly had any store bought bacon because it is so bad! Oh, and the hams..."

That's quite true.

More than once my wife and I have had the odd experience of eating in a restaurant at the invitation of somebody else, who then praises the beef, while we look at each other, mutually thinking it's pretty mediocre. Certainly not as good as the one at home in the freezer.

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