Rare Breeds of Cattle:
Digging into my family’s roots has led me to grow all kinds of Polish heritage tomatoes. Ranging from sweet to acidic in taste and berry to beefsteak in form, their toughness to survive poor growing conditions makes them heroes when placed next to anemic hybrids. Expanding our interest in genetic diversity from seeds to farm livestock, I ask my Polish friend one day what kind of cattle they had in Poland before the advent of the ubiquitous Holstein.
“Red cows,” replies the university physics genius. I scoff at the idea that they lack a specific name but a Google search reveals that they have been simply known as “red cattle” for centuries and now as “Polish Red Cattle.”
They produce milk on pasture without expensive inputs such as grain while remaining resistant to disease, allowing the traditional small-acreage farmers to provide for their families and participate in niche cheese markets for conscientious consumers.
Thousands of these dual purpose (beef and milk) cattle thrive because the European Union provides substantial subsidies to farmers in Poland and throughout Europe to use heritage breeds. Eric Marr, a Canadian student at the University of York in England, tells of discovering many towns proud of their unique breed of sheep or cattle that form part of local culture. The port town of Gloucester is famous for its double Gloucester cheese that was traditionally made from milk from a breed called The Old Gloucester Cow, a heritage breed with white topline and garters (upper leg and belly) similar to depictions in Palaeolithic cave paintings.
Many breeds brought to North America since the 1700s have been bred for the triple purposes of milk, meat and oxen-power or other characteristics. Cattle with the distinctive white topline and garters have flourished on Eastern Ontario’s rough pasture and cool temperatures. Considered a possible relation to the Gloucester Cow, the breed became known as the Lineback for its distinctive markings. In 1895, the Lynch family of Mallorytown, Ontario kept the first written record of this breed in their farm herd book. Grandson Robert Lynch has developed the purity of the Lynch Lineback from the 1950s to the present day, affirming the experience of many Canadian farmers and the results of a 2014 University of Guelph study—that heritage breeds can be profitable with their inherent strengths and lower input costs.
During my childhood, I buried my Polish heritage to be just like my friends. During my adolescence, I vowed I’d never go back to the farm because there were far easier ways to make money. As a young adult, I married a city girl who wanted to live on a farm and raise sheep. That changed my outlook on life! We agreed to have a big vegetable garden grown from heritage seeds and rotationally graze a rare breed of heritage sheep, all organically. Today, we own a flock of Lincoln Longwools, whose roots go back to the first-century Roman occupation of England. As I like to tell my parish priest and fellow Christians, “These are the sheep Jesus was talking about!”
This large sheep has been bred over centuries to produce wonderful lean meat. Mature rams weigh up to 160 kg (350 lbs) and ewes, 110 kg (250 lbs). Lambs mature slowly over a nine-month period to reach a weight of about 36 kg (80 lbs). Their fleece—in white or dark colours—is one of the heaviest (9 kg/20 lbs) and longest (38 cm/15 in). It is the most lustrous fleece and the toughest—able to maintain its strength during crude 19th century dying processes. Given its durability, it was historically used for carpets.
Lincolns came to Canada in the 1800s and became firmly established, with a reputation for tolerating cold weather, good mothering and growing superb meat and wool. Little wonder that by 1900, the breed became the most popular in Ontario.
Since the 1950s, synthetics have rapidly replaced wool in carpets and clothes. Dual-purpose breeds such as the Lincoln have become rare with the new focus on hybrids that offer rapid weight gain for meat. Now, vastly cheaper meat and wool products shipped from Australia have been the last strike against a floundering industry. Strike three, but not quite out!
Fighting this livestock extinction doomsday clock is Rare Breeds Canada, a charitable organization since 1987 that supports farmers who voluntarily raise all kinds of heritage livestock. The 2015 livestock conservation list, an annual update for newly registered females, shows fewer than 25 Lynch Linebacks and fewer than 30 Lincoln Longwools, placing both breeds on the critically endangered list. Board director Elwood Quinn believes the key to the survival of these breeds is finding a profitable purpose through niche marketing.
Lynch Lineback cattle have always produced delicious well-marbled meat, to the delight of meat lovers. Breeding females, numbering 40 in Canada, also produce milk with the A-2 type of beta-casein protein, which is far easier for many people to digest than the more common A-1 protein milk. Retail stores in England regularly offer the A-2, golden-coloured milk alternative produced by (rare) Guernsey cows and interest is growing for the same among Canadian milk lovers. This year’s genetic test results may finally provide history buffs with an answer about the Lynch Lineback’s link to the Gloucester cow.
Health-conscious meat lovers may save the Lincoln Longwool with its grass-fed taste and favourable ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. Artisans spin and weave the wool into such products as blankets and socks. Better educated consumers are returning to natural wool products and question the wisdom of synthetic materials that have an unfriendly touch, give off toxic fumes that trigger allergic reactions, melt into the skin instead of turning to ash if burned and last for generations when tossed into the landfill.
The 100-mile market has challenged consumers to wean themselves from imports to emphasize locally produced food, clothes and household products. The future is definitely looking brighter.