Others creating libraries, preserving breeds

Published on April 03, 2013
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The Swiss Village Farm Foundation is not alone in working to preserve livestock genetics and diversity.

The Department of Agriculture, through its Agricultural Research Service, is storing germ plasm from about 20,000 animals through the National Animal Germplasm Program. Coordinator and animal geneticist Harvey Blackburn, PhD, said the program has about 740,000 samples from 130 livestock breeds.

Dr. Blackburn said the USDA program has, since 1999, collected samples from commercially viable as well as rare breeds, and it has distributed samples from about 3,000 animals for use in genetic research and breeding. The samples also could be used to quickly re-establish an animal population following a disease outbreak.

Dorset Horn ram
Photo by Greg Cima

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy also works to keep about 200 breeds of animal alive by finding new or rare animals, performing censuses, documenting characteristics and adaptive traits, securing genetic diversity within breeds, educating owners, and increasing interest among potential owners. Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for the conservancy, said the breeds are irreplicable genetic resources, and keeping the animals alive lets the breed adapt to changing environments.

Beranger noted that the conservancy has helped restore the population and breed standard of Buckeye chickens, which were critically endangered five years ago but now number about 2,500 breeding birds. Heritage pig breeds are another concern, Beranger said, but heritage Herefords and Guinea hogs are among the darlings of chefs, and recent increases in feed prices could lead farmers to look for heritage hogs better able to forage in wooded areas.

Dr. David J. Matsas, assistant professor of environmental and population health at Tufts University, said the farm foundation’s project stands out because of its focus on embryos, which are more difficult to collect than semen samples, and on collecting entirely from rare livestock instead of breeds popular in modern agriculture. The most valuable populations, he said, are the ones least studied for commercial interests, since selective breeding can inadvertently eliminate beneficial genetic material.