In addition to efforts focused on crop varieties, the Rian Fried Center is also deepening our commitment to heritage livestock breeds. This includes a transition toward on-farm breeding of dual-purpose heritage breed chickens, the acquisition of a breeding pair of Guinea hogs, and a pair of Shorthorn calves to be trained as the next generation of working oxen to serve our draft animal programs. The addition of the American Guinea Hog will not only give students a smaller pig to learn and manage, but also a pig which thrives on pasture management systems, will improve our soils, and provide us with young stock for our food systems. American Guinea Hogs are a lard pig, very few of which are still produced, particularly in commercial settings. However, many of these traditional breeds are well suited to the crafting of charcuterie. The lard produced can be incorporated into baked goods, used for cooking leaner meats, in place of cooking oils, and as an addition to sausage.
Further learning and conservation benefits adhere to our active dedication to the preservation and perpetuation of livestock genetic diversity. In the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List, Guinea hogs are currently considered a “threatened” breed, with fewer than 1,000 registered animals in the U.S. and a global population of less than 5,000, while heritage Shorthorns conservation status is classified as “critical.” The latter designation indicates fewer than 200 animals registered in the U.S. and a global population of less than 2,000 animals. Like rare crop varieties, rare and endangered livestock breeds embody the genius of localized knowledge and interspecies cooperation that is threatened by the homogenizing tendencies of an increasingly consolidated global industrial agriculture.
As we develop the breeds of livestock to best fit our systems, we hone our systems to best fit our livestock and landscape. Management Intensive Grazing is a system of migrating livestock across the landscape that best mimics traditional movements of herds across wild grasslands. It has multiple benefits across the farm — from decreased feed costs for the farmer, better animal nutrition, healthy pastures, and in properly managed systems, improved carbon sequestration by grassland plants and soils.
The Sterling Farm is a complex system. Our livestock includes sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, and poultry. Each group brings its own particular needs and services to the grazing system. Pigs are great renovators and nutrient cyclers; poultry fertilize grasses, and feed on invertebrates; sheep enjoy some browse but can graze close to the ground as well; horses can nip off over-mature, stemmy plants and still thrive on this high fiber feed; cattle can trample as much as they graze, helping dead plant material find its way back into the soil.
Students on campus in the summer start to learn how to read not just the livestock, but also the land that they graze on. All of the groups on campus must be balanced in their impacts, which means frequent moves from pasture to pasture, and calculated applications of soil disturbance and plant removal. This dance of organisms across the landscape, is a way for students to begin to understand how ecosystems work, exploring and participating in the processes of succession, disturbance, determining carrying capacity, developing resilience, and maintaining biodiversity.