Other conservation campaigns have been motivated less by environmentalism than by the desire to preserve history and tradition. In the 1970s, Vermont’s Randall cattle got down to a single herd when the farmer Everett Randall passed away. His family, ill-equipped to care for them, planned to disperse the remaining 15 cows. But when the Tennessee farmer Cynthia Creech got word of their plight in Small Farmer’s Journal, she was so moved that she researched the breed, bought all the animals, then restored them to health on her farm before moving herself and the cattle back to their hometown in Vermont.
The ranks of these conservationists are diverse, including activists like Frank, breeding associations across the United States and Canada, research facilities, and an organization called the Livestock Conservancy, which was created in the 1970s when a few historians had trouble locating an American Milking Devon cow for a commemorative display in Massachusetts. The conservancy, based in North Carolina, protects heritage cows by tracking their status and conducting rare-breed rescues to retrieve dwindling herds in areas threatened by predators or development. The breed associations focus on connecting what few heritage farmers are left. The American Milking Devon Cattle Association, for instance, maintains a bank of semen, which they sell to heritage breeders.
Cryopreservation, embryo transfer, and semen banks are tempting ways to grow these breeds quickly, but the practices are controversial within the heritage community for the threat they pose to gene pools that are already very limited. Inbreeding isn’t much better than shrinking biodiversity, so conservationists have to strike a balance. “If the agricultural landscape becomes more diversified, it will be less susceptible to possible collapse—like in the example of the Irish Potato Famine,” says Ryan Walker, the marketing and communications manager for the Livestock Conservancy.
Walker’s reference to Ireland’s dependence on a potato strain that was hit by blight in the mid-1800s is one that conservationists raise often. “Heritage breeds are our insurance policy against this type of collapse,” he says.
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Despite these concerns about extinction, struggling dairy farmers often don’t have the time or resources to consider breeding cows who produce less milk than Holsteins. Milk prices have been in a slump for years, leaving commodity dairy farms on tight budgets with razor-thin margins. Many farmers take second jobs.
“Farmers face the same bills the rest of us do, with food, housing, health care, children going to school,” says Drew Conroy, a professor and farmer who used to head up the American Milking Devon Cattle Association, an organization of Devon breeders located throughout New England. Conroy owns Devons, but says that without his teaching job, he wouldn’t be able to make a living off of the cows alone. For the full-time Holstein farmers producing the bulk of the U.S. milk supply, there is even less room for experimentation with rare breeds.