Consumers seek out heritage breeds

Differentiation offered by specialty breeds fills a niche market

What’s old is new again, at least when it comes to breeds of livestock. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in heritage breeds in their quest for food with a story. They not only want to know where their food comes from but want to know the history behind it.

Generally a breed is referred to as “heritage” if it has existed for more than 100 years. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ABLC) is the national organization that works to preserve and promote heritage breeds and educate the public about their attributes. ALBC feels preserving this population of animals is a significant facet of preserving the agricultural roots and tradition of farming and maintaining genetic diversity.

Heritage breeds are often introduced by chefs and foodies and the word spreads from there to the general population. Consumers are increasingly willing to search outside of traditional market channels to seek out producers of these breeds which they feel offer special attributes.

The heritage turkey market has been developed across the country for the last ten years and an increasing number of producers are offering the birds at premium price. While most consumers today still eat Broad Breasted White turkeys, the mild-flavored bird that replaced other turkey breeds back in the 60s, heritage breeds like Bourbon Red and Standard Bronze are making a comeback. These turkeys have a slower growth rate than the Broad Breasted White, more dark meat and a gamier flavor.

There has also been growing interest in heritage breeds of hogs such as Tamworth and Berkshire. These breeds have some characteristics that modern breeds are lacking. In an effort to cater to health conscious consumers, modern hog breeds have been bred to be very lean. The heritage breeds offer more fat and fat provides flavor. The Berkshire breed is particularly prized for its marbling of fat that is interspersed throughout the meat.

There is also increasing interest in heritage breeds of cattle like Dexter, Devon, Belted Galloway and Highland. These breeds often are well suited to pasture-based production, another market driver for a growing segment of consumers.

While there is opportunity for producers in raising heritage breeds, there are some important principles to keep in mind. Heritage breeds can be more costly to raise. Heritage breeding stock is not as readily accessible and may require travel and a greater initial investment to acquire. Often heritage breeds are less efficient in their growth which increases the cost of production.

As with any niche market, producers need to create value in their products and relay that value to the consumer. Heritage meats and poultry are most often direct marketed to consumers, which requires an additional time commitment and the willingness of farmers to interact with consumers.

The MSU Product Center can assist farmers who are interested in developing differentiated livestock products and businesses. The Product Center can provide assistance in developing a business plan; marketing and promotion of value-added and differentiated products. The Product Center can also connect producers with MSU Extension educators who can provide expertise in production practices.

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