We've Got to Save the Chickens! Really!

YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio (AP)—Farmers in west central Ohio are hoping to preserve some breeds of livestock considered endangered by conservationists.

Jerome Kingery has milking Devon cows along with Leicester longwool sheep, Narragansett turkeys, Nankin bantam chickens and Dominique chickens on his farm north of Yellow Springs.

Outside Fort Loramie, Leroy Meyer grazes about a dozen Dutch belted cows among his 60-cow herd.

Both breeds of cattle are considered critical by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The nonprofit group based in Pittsboro, N.C., seeks to protect livestock and poultry from extinction.

The ranking, the group's most serious in the livestock category, means there are fewer than 200 of the breed registered in the United States each year and it's estimated that fewer than 2,000 exist worldwide.

The Leicester longwool sheep and Narragansett turkeys are considered threatened, a ranking just below critical and the Dominique chicken is on a watch list.

"A lot of these breeds represent the breeds that founded our country,'' said Don Schrider, a conservancy spokesman.

As agriculture began to focus more on mass production, some cows lost favor with farmers. Nine of 10 U.S. dairy producers use Holsteins, in part because of their ability to produce greater quantities of milk, according to the Holstein Association USA.

"As we approach a monoculture, we really have to wonder if that's the wisest decision for 200 years from now,'' Schrider said. "We really are selling ourselves short if we don't find a way to maintain our diversity.''

Schrider said some breeds have made a comeback because they offer a different flavor.

"What we're finding for a lot of these animals is they fit into grass-fed or organic production,'' Schrider said. "They were built for small-scale agriculture.''

Meyer, who wants to turn his dairy organic, said the Dutch belted is a healthy breed, a grazer that does well in pastures and is less likely to come down with certain illnesses after calving.

P.T. Barnum imported Dutch belteds—given their name because of the white stripe that circles their midsection—in the 1840s as an oddity for his circus.

"I like the temperament real well,'' said Meyer, 46, who farms with his wife, Rose, and their three teenagers.

Meyer said the Dutch belted produces about 55 to 60 pounds of milk daily, versus the 65 to 70 pounds a Holstein might produce. He said his Dutch belted cows produce about 50 pounds a day because cattle that graze tend to produce less than cattle who diet mainly on grain, hay and silage.

He said the loss in production is justified by labor savings and what he calls "a better quality milk product.''

It could also help bring in more revenue as part of his plan to go organic. Meyer said farmers who sell to the organic market typically earn $24 to $25 per 100 pounds of milk, versus the $13 per 100 pounds made with conventional milk.

Kingery said the milking Devon cattle on his farm landed at Plymouth, Mass., in 1623, and became the king of livestock during the Colonial era. With a red coat, white horns tipped with black and an aggressive nature, they were used for their milk, meat and strength in pulling.

Kingery said they were still in use during the mid-1800s, providing power to wagons and prairie schooners on the Oregon Trail. But they lost their role as farmers turned to mules and horses.

Today, about 600 survive in the U.S., said Drew Conroy, president of the American Milking Devon Cattle Association. The association is unaware of any milking Devons outside the United States.

Their survival is due in part to ox-pulling competitions at New England agricultural fairs and living-history destinations such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Kingery focuses on raising breeds brought to the United States before 1790.

"We're not doing it for the money,'' said Kingery, 53, who lends his animals to historical reenactments at fairs. "We're doing it because we think it needs to be done.''