Understanding Livestock Breeds

I have never met a person in North America who did not know what a Labrador Retriever looked like, or a German Shepherd. It’s a pretty well-understood concept that these are two distinctly different types of dog. They look different, and they’re used for different purposes. Most people know that a Lab is a common companion and hunting dog. German Shepherds are popular companions, but are also iconic as police dogs. This is just a concept that society understands well. Dogs come in different breeds that look, behave, and move differently. To some extent, people understand this about cats, horses and other types of animal. However, the average everyday person does not generally grasp this concept in relation to livestock.

In the past, I wrote a post highlighting the aesthetic differences between beef and dairy cattle, and some of the “how” and “why” of their appearances. I had forgotten about that post, until another conversation came up on Twitter today about explaining the differences between dairy and beef cattle. This thought process then transitioned in the statement that it doesn’t just happen in cattle. Most animals that are raised for purposes other than companionship tend to just be lumped together by species. A cow is a cow, a pig is a pig, a rabbit is a rabbit, and all chickens are created equal.


I run into this a lot while discussing rabbits. People recognize that there are rabbits with upright ears and rabbits with floppy ears (formally known as “lop ears.”) They don’t, however, realize that rabbits can range in size from under two pounds to over 20, and that certain breeds are produced strictly for pet use while others are raised for meat, some are produced for high quality fur pelts and others are bred to be sheered or plucked for spinning and textiles. In fact, the American Rabbit Breeders’ Association recognizes 48 unique and diverse breeds of rabbit, ranging across a wide variety of sizes, body types, coat types, and uses.

This is myself holding Gus, a Flemish Giant buck that I once owned. Gus was only 6 months old here, and had a little bit of growing to do yet. He was also on the small side for his breed. Flemish Giants are generally 18-24 lbs. at maturity, with the females being on average 2-5 lbs. heavier than males of the same age group. They are the largest breed of rabbit recognized in the U.S. Flemish Giants are used for meat and pelt production, but are also very popular companion animals because they are large enough for kennels, are trainable to live indoors, can walk on leashes, and can fend for themselves against other pets like cats and dogs.

This, on the other hand is a Netherland Dwarf. It is tied with the Britannia Petite as the smallest breed of rabbit the U.S. They top out at about 2.5 lbs. Netherland Dwarves are one of the most popular breeds to keep as housepets and are very "trendy" on the show circuits right now. They're virtually useless for meat and fur because of their small size. (Image care of Google.)

Rabbits are just one example of livestock with different unique breeds.

Pigs are another good example. People generally assume that all pigs are pink, although some may recognize “Oreo pigs” when they see them. Those “Oreo pigs” are actually called Hampshires. There are several breeds recognized in the U.S., including (but not limited to) Hampshire, Landrace, Yorkshire, Duroc, Berkshire, Chester White, Poland China, and Pietrin. Pigs vary slightly from rabbits in that, you can often show mix-breed animals. Because of that, you’ll see a lot more liberal crossing of genetics. Since pigs are crossed often, different breed crossings are considered similar to “sub-breeds” and bring different benefits. Some breeds encourage better mothering abilities, such as the Landrace which is known for milk production in sows (mature female pigs). Some breeds, like the Berkshire, encourage large size and good finishing, which is the process of feeding and prepping the animal for harvest.

This is a Yorkshire gilt, which means it's a young female pig. Yorks, as they're often called, what most people think of when they think "pig." (Image care of Google.)

This is a Duroc gilt. Everything from the red color to the floppy ears defies the stereotypical image of a pig to most people. However, they're the second most popular breed of pig in the U.S. currently, according the National Swine Registry. (Image care of Google.)

I know next to nothing about poultry, but I do know that there are a LOT of breeds of chicken raised in the U.S. for meat and egg-laying purposes. Here’s a complete list of the different breeds of chicken, waterfowl, turkey, and other types of fowl recognized by the American Poultry Association. If you’re confused, that’s okay; I don’t understand what a lot of it means either. However, it gives you an idea of how many different types of bird are raised in this country for their meat, feathers, and eggs. This is just for context, to show that a “chicken” isn’t just a “chicken.” Also, did you know there’s a breed of turkey called the Bourbon Red? I’m intrigued. (I should point out, chickens and other poultry animals terrify me. I just don’t trust birds that much…they have beady eyes and talons. I don’t like beady eyes and talons.)

Cattle is a whole new ball of wax, as mentioned in my post about cattle breeds. They are often split up in dairy and beef types, and there are several of each recognized in the U.S. To make things even more complicated, there are sometimes reasons for cross-breeding between the two specializations. Then, there is also the question of “dual-purpose breeds” — cattle that can be used for either dairy or beef. I could write several posts on these intricate matters, and probably will down the road.

My friend Luv Hahn posted this picture from her family's dairy. The large black and white cows are Holsteins. The large grayish-brown cow toward the left is a Brown Swiss. The small golden-brown cow toward the right is a Jersey. The Holsteins produce the most milk, but it has a lower butterfat content. The Brown Swiss make less milk than the Holsteins, but with higher butterfat. The Jersey is the smallest and will produce the least amount of milk, but it will be richer than that of the larger breeds that produce more. All three breeds are necessary parts of the dairy industry!

Here's another picture from Luv's dairy. It just gives you a front view of different breeds of dairy cow. Can you pick out which ones are Holsteins, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss? There's even a "trick" one in there...a red and white Holstein, rather than black and white!

I could go on forever, listing major species of livestock and the reasons that these different breeds are a necessary part of a strong agriculture industry. I could go into detail as to why some breeds of sheep are raised for meat while others are better suited for high-quality wool, whereas different breeds of goat are geared more for milk and others for meat. Different necessities call for different specializations, which leads to the careful and conscious selection of traits and genetics.

The diversity and speciality of the different breeds of livestock we use helps create strength in different sects of the agriculture industry. If your head is spinning from all of this information, let me make it worse: other countries have even more different recognized breeds of various livestock. And, just like here, the different breeds are selectively bred, maintained, and perfected to meet a specific need or desire.

Long story short, animal breeds are pretty freaking cool. Yeah.


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