Conserving Rare Southern Livestock
by Larry Williams of Starkville, MS
Conserving rare livestock breeds is a challenging venture, and conservation of some of the rarest breeds can be a costly undertaking. Most people who keep rare breeds must balance breed conservation with the need to make a profit. David and Jennifer Ozborn, along with their three sons have an eighty acre farm in Brandon, Mississippi where they work to maintain herds of four rare livestock breeds that are native to the Southeast. Over seven years they have had excellent success in conserving these rare breeds while at the same time keeping their farm in the financial black. They are quick to remind visitors that in endeavors like this success is measured in many ways, not only in dollars and profit but also by how well the breeds are being conserved, and the satisfaction that sustainable farming brings. David and Jennifer both come from farming backgrounds, and they have set the stage to raise their three sons, Ben (four), Garrette (two), and Dawson (seven months), in the same environment.
The Ozborns work with a collection of livestock breeds that is similar to what early pioneers in the southeastern United States would have kept. All of the breeds were of Spanish origin, but as they adapted to the region’s native range conditions they became new and distinct breeds that were extremely well suited to the rigors of frontier life. By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s changes began to occur in farming practices and other forms of land use that would eventually make these breeds almost extinct. The Ozborn’s work to keep this collection of breeds, which includes Pineywoods cattle, Spanish goats, Gulf Coast Native sheep, and Choctaw mustangs, as viable alternatives for today’s farmers.
Pineywoods cattle are relatively small, with mature cows weighing 600-800 pounds, and bulls averaging 800-1200 pounds. They have a somewhat rangy, angular appearance, typical of cattle of Spanish ancestry that have adapted to harsh conditions. The breed contains almost all of the solid colors and many of the spotting patterns known to cattle. Most Pineywoods cattle are horned, and their horns are typically slender and moderate in length.
The Pineywoods developed primarily along the Gulf Coastal Plain of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Historically this region was covered with forests of longleaf pine, the landscape that gave rise to the breed’s name. Coastal Plain soils are usually very sandy and relatively infertile as nutrients and water tend to seep away quickly. Rivers and streams in the region have high levels of tannic acid, leaving them a dark, tea stained color. This environment shaped the Pineywoods, as most of them were allowed to range free throughout the forests, canebreaks and creek bottoms. Forage was made up of the coarse grasses, cane, and shrubs native to the area. Settlers to the region learned early that the longleaf pine forests were susceptible to periodic fires, and they used this tool to eliminate brush and stimulate the more palatable grasses and forbs. As the climate of this region produces moderate winters and very hot summers (often with summer temperatures in the triple digits), Pineywoods were by necessity heat tolerant.
Pineywoods make excellent oxen, as they are very durable and usually have docile temperaments. Pineywoods oxen were the primary force used in logging the virgin tracts of longleaf pine forest during a period that roughly spanned 1840 to 1915. Although some logging outfits favored mules, overall they were a distant second in popularity. Many historical photos show Pineywoods yoked and standing in park-like stands of longleaf pine. In some cases the cattle were so important for draft work that goats became the primary meat source. In fact, at times the slaughter of cattle for meat was not allowed in some areas.
Pineywoods cattle numbers started to decline in the late 1800’s as improved English and European cattle were brought into the southeastern United States. About this same time, the pine-dominated landscape that had given rise to the breed’s name was also undergoing dramatic change. Most of the virgin forest had been logged, and more sedentary type of agriculture were established. The Pineywoods lost both their job and their environment.
As the overall popularity and abundance of Pineywoods declined, only a few families continued to keep purebred herds. As time passed, these herds became isolated from one another to the point that now each herd has become a unique and self-contained strain. Today these strains are the most important genetic elements of the breed. The strains are named after the families that conserved them such as the Holts in Georgia, Barneses in Alabama, and Conways, Baylisses, and Carters in Mississippi. Some of the family strains have been selected for specific color or patterns. For example, Conway cattle are red and white in various patterns, and Holt cattle are nearly always black color-sided roans, while Griffin cattle tend to be yellow. The Carter strain is noted for beginning in the 1860’s when Print Carter, a sixteen-yearold Civil War veteran, swam a herd of red cows across the Pearl River and began raising cattle. The last outside animal to enter the herd was a bull in 1895, yet the herd thrives today.
Pineywoods are listed as Critical on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List. It is estimated that only about 1,000 to 1,500 individual animals exist today, and many of these are not in pure-breeding herds. Some Pineywoods lineages were previously accepted into the registry for the closely related Florida Cracker cattle. The Ozborns and other Pineywoods enthusiasts have recently established a new registry for the breed.
Gulf Coast Native Sheep
Spanish sheep first arrived in Florida in the 1500’s. Later importations of Spanish and other breeds of sheep mixed with the earlier population, all evolving under the strong natural selection of the native range conditions of Florida and other Gulf Coast states. Today a remnant of this population survives and is known as the Gulf Coast Native or simply Native. Populations from particular states are often referred to by the state name, for example “Florida Native” and “Louisiana Native.”
Gulf Coast Natives have a small body size with a refined bone structure. They have open (wool free) faces, clean legs, and underlines are white to dark brown in color. They have also developed a degree of resistance to internal parasites. The Florida Agriculture Experiment Station in Gainesville has a flock which has been maintained without the use of anthelmintics since 1962. Experiments have shown the presence of a factor or factors which acts against infection by some gut parasites, in particular the stomach worm, Haemonchus contortus, which is very prevalent in the Southeast. Similar results have been obtained using Louisiana Natives at Louisiana State University. Most current breeders of the Gulf Coast Native has also eliminated, or severely limited, the use of wormers in their management practices in order to maintain the breed’s resistance to internal parasites.
Gulf Coast Natives are adapted to the hot and humid conditions of the Southeast, continuing to produce and raise at least one lamb each per year without intensive management. Studies comparing Florida Native sheep to Hampshire and Rambouillets at the University of Florida have shown that although the Florida Native produces lighter finished lambs in the same year period as other breeds, they have a higher live lamb percentage production and a better ratio of lambs finished to ewes mated. This is a measure of the breed’s adaptation to the environment and shows how it could contribute to the revival of the sheep industry in the Southeast.
The average wool quality for the breed is as follows: wool diameter 26-32 microns; spinning count 48-58; grease fleece weight 4-6 lbs./ewe; staple length 2.5″-4.0″. However, wool quality is variable in the breed. White is the predominate wool color but some exhibit brown or tan colors. Both sexes may be horned, scurred or polled (hornless). ALBC lists the breed as Critical.
Beginning in the 1500s, Spanish goats were brought from Spain to the Caribbean Islands and from there to the areas that would become the United States and Mexico. These foundation stocks were an undifferentiated Mediterranean type of goat that was common in Spain at the time but does not exist there now. This adds genetic and historic importance to the Spanish goat breeds which evolved in the New World.
Goats flourished in the Americas. Valued as a ready source of milk, meat, and hides, they were taken everywhere the Spanish went and became an integral part of subsistence production across southern North America, Central America, and South America. The use of goats for meat was also important because it allowed cattle to be reserved for draft power, essential for crop production and transportation. Spanish goats were the only goats known across the southern United States and in most other parts of the Americas for over 300 years. There were many regional types and strains (both domestic and feral) shaped by natural selection and geographic isolation. This changed with the importation of goat breeds from other countries beginning in the second half of the 1800s. The majority of Spanish goats in the United States were crossed with imported breeds for dairy production or were replaced by Angora goats for the production of fiber.
Today, there are relatively few purebred Spanish goats in the United States. One obstacle to the use and promotion of these goats is that the term “Spanish goats” is also used to describe crossbred and nondescript goats of the Southeast. In the Southeast, Spanish goats are also called brush, woods, and scrub goats, and these terms may include both purebred and crossbred animals. Conservation of Spanish goats has also been hindered by the lack of a breed registry or association. Many people still do not understand that the Spanish goat is a pure breed; this is an easy mistake to make given the variable use of the term “Spanish” and the physical variability within the population. The ALBC has encouraged fieldwork to describe the various strains of Spanish goats.
The ALBC has also encouraged the development of a formal network of breeders. Such networks are extremely important, as demonstrated recently when Mr. Rob Bayliss, a Spanish goat breeder in south Mississippi, began to have failing health. None of his family had the same interest in livestock, and the herd of goats he had maintained for more than seventy years would have likely been dispersed at the local livestock auction. Fortunately, he and the Ozborns had become acquainted, and now the remnants of his herd rest safely with the Ozborns.
Interest in Spanish goats is increasing with the growth of the goat meat industry and with increased recognition of the breed’s production qualities. Spanish goats are hardy and rugged, thriving on rough forage and in difficult environments. The does are long lived and prolific.
The breed has secured a production niche in Texas, and the largest number of Spanish goat herds are found in this state. Even in Texas, however, it has become common for Spanish goats to be crossbred for meat production, especially with the Boer goat, a meat breed from South Africa. This cross shows superb hybrid vigor, but the overuse of crossbreeding could threaten the survival of pure Spanish populations. Pure Spanish goats are also being crossbred for the production of cashmere, another useful application of their characteristics but one which also removes animals from the purebred breeding group.
The Spanish goat is a landrace and varies in appearance. The goats range in weight from 50- 200 pounds, with the largest animals representing strains that have been selected over many decades for meat production. Spanish goats are usually horned, and the horns on bucks may be large and twisted. The ears are large, and they are held horizontally and forward next to the head. Though the ears may be long like those of Nubians, the ear carriage is distinct, and the straight or concave face is quite different from that of the Nubian breed. Spanish goats can be any color that is found in goats, and color variation, even in single herds, can be dazzling.
Some estimate the total population of Spanish goats may be as large as 8,000, but the challenges to the breed’s survival are imposing. For this reason, the ALBC currently lists the breed in the “Watch” Category.
Choctaw mustangs are a strain of the Spanish mustangs that was originally developed by the Choctaw Indians of Mississippi and Alabama. At most, only a few hundred Choctaw Mustangs are alive today. Spanish Conquistadors brought their ancestors to the New World where they were used for riding as well as draft. In the early 1800’s the Choctaw Nation was removed from its Mississippi and Alabama home land to Oklahoma where the strain of horse was maintained for more than one hundred years. Twenty-five years ago there were still up to 1,500 of the original type Choctaw mustangs in Oklahoma. Since then numbers have been extremely reduced, and most of the genetics reside in one herd maintained by Bryant Rickman in Oklahoma. Although the ALBC lists all Spanish Mustangs as “Critical,” the Choctaw as well as the closely related Cherokee and Huesteca strains are truly surviving by only a thin thread.
Physically Choctaws are very compact, ranging from 13.2 to 15 hands. Their colors include nearly the full range found in horses: black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, linebacked dun, palomino, buckskin, tobiano, frame overo, sabino, blanket, varnish roan, and leopard. Obviously the color genetics of these horses is both fascinating and challenging. Dr. Phil Sponenberg DVM, who is the Technical Coordinator to the ALBC, is recognized internationally as an expert in equine color genetics. Dr. Sponenberg owns a Choctaw stallion and is working closely with the owners of the remaining Choctaws, researching pedigrees and identifying target animals for conservation and breeding groups.
The Choctaw mustang is known for a sweet disposition, stamina and endurance. Many do a running walk or gait in addition to (or instead of) a trot. The endurance of the Spanish mustang, including the Choctaw, is legendary. They have become one of the dominant breeds in endurance races, where they regularly complete 100 mile endurance races in ten to twelve hours. Like other mustangs, Choctaws do good on low rations and they possess extremely durable feet.
All four breeds of livestock the Ozborns’ have selected share several common traits, traits that are a direct result of the free range conditions in which the breeds developed. All of the breeds are relatively small in size, and this relates directly to their heat resistance. Simple physics shows that smaller objects dissipate heat more quickly, making these breeds better adapted to the hot humid climate of the Southeast. Small size is also related to maintenance feed requirements as larger animals need larger amounts of feed to sustain their bodies. These breeds developed in the “boom or bust” environment of the native woodlands of the deep South where grazing and forage were usually abundant during the spring and summer, but not so during the fall and especially the winter. Likewise, dry years were especially hard on pioneer livestock because there were no irrigated pastures or transportation systems to deliver feed from outside areas. These conditions selected for individuals that were smaller, had less dietary needs, and overall were more efficient at processing smaller amounts of food.
Another adaptation of free-range conditions is maximum ease of birthing. All of these breeds are known for their ability to have unassisted births. The Ozborns’ experience has born this true, so far they have yet to lose an animal that was giving birth.
The final shared characteristic is parasite resistance. While university studies with the Gulf Coast Native sheep have proven their resistance to internal parasites, David says the other breeds have demonstrated very good resistance as well. For example, their experience with Pineywoods cattle has shown that very little wormer is needed. In their original environment the cattle would have been able to move much more freely thereby avoiding concentrations of internal parasites that tend to build up in the soil. David feels if they had the space to move the cattle more frequently they could eliminate worm treatments all together.
As for external parasites, the Ozborns use no medications instead relying on the cattle’s natural resistance. When flies are bad they try to provide the cattle with trees or brush to brush against and wipe the pests away. Ticks are very abundant in the area and frequently found on yearling cattle. However, after their first year the cattle seem to be almost tick-free, leading David to speculate they either build up an internal resistance or become very adept at scraping the ticks off.
The Ozborns use very limited worming treatments with the sheep and goats. Gulf Coast Native sheep are well known for their resistance to internal parasites (see breed profile above). They worm the sheep only as yearlings, thereafter relying on their natural resistance. They believe the goats can be managed in a similar way, but they are not quite ready to experiment with them. David says “This strain of goats is so rare that I don’t feel comfortable yet in not working them. I believe they have the resistance in them, and as soon as we build the herd up we do plan on trying to eliminate the wormer.”
Their grazing system is designed to make the best use of each breed’s natural feeding tendencies. For example, the horses are more suited for grazing taller grasses, so such areas are targeted for them. The cattle also do well on tall grasses, but they are a little more efficient at feeding on shorter grasses. The sheep are the best at foraging on short grasses and can also eat forbs, while the goats do well on forbs and brush. While there is obviously quite a lot of overlap between the needs as far as grazing abilities go, each one has a niche which the Ozborns try to target. This requires that the grazing system be flexible. The Ozborns’ basic system is a rotation of the various breeds confined by portable electric fences. A single strand electric fence is used for the cattle and horses. They use a combination of solid aluminum wire (which carries a charge extremely well, but is prone to burning in two at connections), and a woven copper/steel/polyester wire that is more durable and more visible, but less conductive. The single strand fence works especially well with the cattle as it lets the yearlings go under and in to the next rotation where they don’t have to compete with older animals for forage.
The goats and sheep are confined in a mesh type fence with hot horizontal wires of woven copper/steel/polyester and rigid fiberglass and plastic posts. The flexibility of portable fencing allows the Ozborns to give the animals access to whatever they need such as water, shade, brush or simply adjust the size of their grazing area.
Capitalizing on the breeds’ feeding habits and their ability to assimilate low quality forage allows the Ozborns to keep supplemental feeding to a minimum. They will provide pelleted feeds when needed, such as during hard winters or droughty summers; however, at times they supplement the diets of the goats and sheep with boughs cut from pine trees, eastern red-cedars, and Chinese privet. Pine and red-cedar are evergreen conifers, and while they certainly would not be considered high quality foods, their evergreen nature makes them fairly nutritional, even during the winter. Chinese privet (also called wild privet or privet hedge) is a shrub or small tree that was imported and used to form fast growing, low maintenance hedges around pioneer homesteads. It grows very aggressively, and is now found along almost every fence row and roadside in the South. It too is evergreen; however, it is a broadleaf and has considerable nutritional value. When the Ozborns feed it to their livestock, the animals not only eat the leaves, but also glean the bark.
Although David’s full time job as a high school biology teacher pays most of the household bills, he and Jennifer insist that the farm be economically viable. Currently farm income is generated in two ways: by selling cattle and sheep for slaughter, and selling all breeds as breeding animals. Selling animals of any rare breed for slaughter is a balancing act that pits economic needs against what is best for breed conservation. The Ozborns try to cull only the least desirable animals, with desirability primarily based on resistance to heat and parasites. They see these as two of the most important traits the breeds embody. At the same time they try to maintain a wide variability in other less critical characteristics such as coloration, horn shape, wool quality, etc.
In contrast, selling animals to other breeders is fairly straight forward. These other breeders are also interested in conserving the breed so they too are looking for animals carrying the good traits the breed is known for. Naturally animals sold as breeding stock command a higher price than those for slaughter.
Like most farm families, the Ozborns are always keeping an eye out for other sources of income. Currently they may pay someone to shear the sheep at a cost of $3 per animal, plus the shearer keeps the wool. They hope to develop a better market for the wool and turn it into another profitable product. However, even now with their income from meat animals and breeding stock they can still keep the farm financially sound. Their herds continue to grow, and they have been able to add new breeds slowly over time. For instance, they were able to add their first Spanish goats and Choctaw mustangs in 1999. Besides the financial successes, there are many other successes equally as important. David and Jennifer are watching their sons grow up in a healthy environment, while at the same time getting great satisfaction in knowing they are conserving four wonderful breeds of livestock.