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Breeds of Livestock

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Frequently Asked Questions


What is a breed?

The classic definition of a "breed" is usually stated as a variation of this statement. Animals that, through selection and breeding, have come to resemble one another and pass those traits uniformly to their offspring.


Unfortunately this definition leaves some unanswered questions. For example, when is a crossbred animal considered a composite breed and when do we stop thinking about them as composites? Perhaps this definition from The Genetics of Populations by Jay L. Lush helps explain why a good definition of "breed" is elusive.


"A breed is a group of domestic animals, termed such by common consent of the breeders, ...a term which arose among breeders of livestock, created one might say, for their own use, and no one is warranted in assigning to this word of a scientific definition and in calling the breeders wrong when they deviate from the formulated definition. It is their word and the breeders common usage is what we must accept as the correct definition."


As you can see from Dr. Lush's definition it is at least in part the perception of the breeders and the livestock industry which decides when a group of individuals constitutes a "breed".


The development of the breeds takes different routes also. In some breeds you can see the amount of change that can occur as the result of selection for a small number of traits. As an example, Holstein cattle have been selected primarily for milk production and are the highest milk producing cattle in the world. Other breeds have traits that result from natural selection pressure based upon the environment in which they were developed. An example of this might be the N'dama cattle from west Africa. These Animals have, through the centuries, developed a resistance to trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness spread by the tse-tse fly, which is fatal to most other breeds of cattle.


Why are we concerned about preserving information about minor, or relatively unknown, breeds of livestock?

Is there a reason for the preservation of minor breeds of livestock? Couldn't more improvement be made if there were fewer breeds? Well, lets go back to our Holsten example again for a moment. While the Holstein clearly has an advantage over other breeds in the production of whole milk, this advantage is based on feeding high levels of cereal grains and pricing that favors low milk-solids content. A drastic change in either of these factors could result in a decrease in the advantage of the Holstein. Given these conditions perhaps a breed that is currently rare or endangered, such as the Dutch Belted, which displayed excellent milking ability in a grass-based dairy situation in trials in the early 1900's, would find itself on the forefront. In Australia, composite breeds, such as the Australian Fresian Sahiwal, have been developed which have higher milk production levels than Holsteins in the tropical regions of that country. Another example might be an increased need for natural resistance to diseases or parasites should a current antibiotic or other treatment become unavailable or ineffective. An example of this type might be the natural resistance some breeds of sheep have to internal parasites. Should anthelmintics become restricted or uneconomical then a breed such as the critically endangered Gulf Coast Native, with the parasite resistance it has developed through natural selection, could be of critical importance in the sheep industry. In many areas, genetic diversity should be maintained to help meet the potential challenge resulting from changes in production resources and market requirements. We hope that this project will serve as an information resource for the potential of some of these breeds.


Why do we have livestock at all? Don't they just eat the food that would be better utilized by being given directly to people.

Agricultural animals have always made a major contribution to the welfare of human societies by providing food, shelter, fuel, fertilizer and other products and services. They are a renewable resource, and utilize another renewable resource, plants, to produce these products and services. In addition, the manure produced by the animals helps improve soil fertility and, thus, aids the plants. In some developing countries the manure cannot be utilized as a fertilizer but is dried as a source of fuel.


Food is, by far, the most important contribution of agricultural animal, although they rank well behind plants in total quantity of food supplied. Plants supply over 80 percent of the total calories consumed in the world. Animals are a more important source of protein than they are of calories, supplying one-third of the protein consumed in the world. Meat, milk and fish are about equal sources of animal protein, supplying, respectively, 35%, 34% and 27% of the world supply of total protein.


There are many who feel that because the world population is growing at a faster rate than is the food supply, we are becoming less and less able to afford animal foods because feeding plant products to animals is an inefficient use of potential human food. it is true that it is more efficient for humans to eat plant products directly rather than to allow animals to convert them to human food. At best, animals only produce one pound or less of human food for each three pounds of plants eaten. However, this inefficiency only applied to those plants and plant products that the human can utilize. The fact is that over two-thirds of the feed fed to animals consists of substances that are either undesirable or completely unsuited for human food. Thus, by their ability to convert inedible plant materials to human food, animals not only do not compete with the humans rather they aid greatly in improving both the quantity and the quality of the diets of human societies.


Table 1. Characteristics of Agricultural Land in Various Geographical Regions.

  Geographical Region Total Land Area
(1000 sq.mi.)
% of Total Land that is Agricultural
% of Agricultural Land that is Cultivated Land
% of Agricultural Land that is Permanent Pasture
  World 50,495 35 31 67
  Developed Countries 21,176 36 33 66
  Developing Countries 29,319 34 29 69
  Africa 8,994 37 19 79
  Asia 10,334 38 45 53
  Europe 1,826 49 55 38
  Oceania 3,254 61 9 91
  North America 7,084 27 46 53
  South America 6,771 31 15 81
  U.S.A. 3,524 47 43 56

Source: FAO Production Yearbook


Table 1 presents some statistics that are ignored by those who would suggest that we can no longer afford the luxury of animal foods. Only about one-third of the land area of the world is classified as agricultural. Thus, roughly two-thirds of the land area of the world is not suited for any sort of agricultural use because it is covered by cites, mountains, deserts, swamps, snow, etc. Of the 35 percent that can be devoted to agriculture, less than one-third (or about 10% of the total land area) can be cultivated and produce plant products that the human can digest. The remaining two-thirds of the world's agricultural land is covered by grass, shrubs or other plants that only ruminant animals can digest. Thus, the inefficiency of animals is not a major concern since they represent the only way these plants can be converted to human food. As the human population of the world increases, it is likely that we will be forced to depend more and more on ruminant animals to meet the increased demands for food.


Thus far, nothing has been said about monogastric animals. It is true that swine and poultry can be competitors with the humans for food if they are produced by the intensive confinement systems widely practiced in the developed countries. In fact the highest proportion of feed grains and other concentrates, such as oilseed meals, fed to livestock in the United States are fed to swine and poultry. Current grain prices make this profitable. This obviously could change if grain prices increase the future. However, the high reproductive rate and favorable feed efficiency of swine and poultry would keep them as important contributors to the diets of humans.



Adding New Breeds or Updating Existing Information


Submission Information for Breeds of Livestock Information

If you would like to submit information on a breed we do not currently have listed, if you have additional information on a breed already listed or if you have new images for one of the breeds we'd like to hear from you.


The written material we would like for each breed includes: a breed history, breed make-up for composite breeds and factual performance information. In order to reduce errors in the written materials we would prefer they be sent either through electronic mail or in text format on an PC formatted disk. You will find an Internet address and postal address listed below. If one of these methods is not possible we can work from printed materials. We are currently only accepting written information in English due to a lack of resources to have materials translated.


We would prefer to receive high quality color photographs of the full body of the animal. We understand this is not always possible, but we would like to provide an accurate photograph so people accessing the listing can see the appearance of the breed. We would also prefer they not be show ring photographs. Video must be in VHS format. Any images sent to us through email should be in JPG (JPEG), TIF (TIFF) or GIF format and have a minimum width of 300 pixels.


Also, any images we include on the web site will have a small copyright added to the bottom.  We have begun doing this to keep the material donated to our web site from being distributed without the consent of ourselves or the persons donating the material.

If you wish for us to return printed materials please let us know.  Since we do include a credit for each person who has contributed to a breeds information please include with your materials a sample of how you would like your credit to read.  We may have to edit it slightly to conform with our restrictions but we will do our best to follow your suggestions.


Thank you for your interest in our project and we look forward to receiving any assistance you be able to provide. If you have further comments or suggestions please let me know.

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