Hang onto your “heritage” at Denver’s Cochon 555

A scene from last year’s Cochon 555, Denver. Photo credit: Galdones Photography

Once upon a time, America was a mostly agrarian nation populated by subsistence farmers. Livestock- which had Old World genetics, having been brought here by 17th and 18th century colonists- possessed attributes that made them well-suited to their respective environments. Some cattle had long, curving horns, which helped them forage in deep snow or thrash through thick brush. Certain breeds of sheep had short, stocky frames that helped them survive cold climates.

The very qualities that once made these breeds an asset became problematic we moved to an industrialized agriculture system in the mid-20th century. Aforementioned sheep also took longer to reach market weight, and cattle with long sharp horns were a hazard to ranchers and fellow bovines when loaded onto stock trucks bound for market. Heritage breeds of dairy goats or cattle may have possessed excellent mothering instincts, but if their milk yield was relatively low, they were of little use to the commodity market.

The Livestock Conservancy’s website notes, “Heritage breeds…were carefully selected and bred…they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture.” The result is a lack of genetic diversity amongst our current industrial livestock breeds (a problem in all developed countries, not just North America). If disease were to wipe out a breed or species, the results would be devastating to both the economy and our food system.

An Oberhasli goat, listed as “recovering” by The Livestock Conservancy. Photo credit: Goat People

Fortunately, groups like The Livestock Conservancy exist to help save and promote heritage breeds from extinction. A growing number of universities, non-profits and family farms and ranches  have breeding programs dedicated to heritage livestock breeds, which retain important traits like disease resistance, climatic tolerance, maternal instincts, and the ability to breed naturally (as opposed to artificial insemination). Of equal importance to consumers: many of these animals produce delicious meat or by-products such as eggs and milk.

Another organization devoted to the preservation of heritage breeds- in this instance, pork- is Cochon 555. Founded eight years ago by Brady Lowe as a way to educate chefs and consumers about heritage breed pigs and encourage the practice of humane livestock management and nose-to-tail cookery, Cochon 555 is a traveling road show. Every year, cities all over the U.S. (including Denver) host whole animal cookery events and competitions, in which five local chefs duke it out for the title of “Prince/Princess of Porc” based on their utilization and talent cooking with a whole hog sourced from local ranches whenever possible.

A scene from Cochon 555’s Heritage Fire event in Snowmass. Photo credit: Cochon 555

Cochon 555’s Denver Heritage BBQ  will be held on March 19 (purchase tickets here) at The Curtis Hotel. The evening will include a butchery demo and raffle, national and regional breweries and distilleries, more food than you can shake a pig’s tail at, and heritage pork sourced from Rock Bottom Ranch and Mountain Primal Meat Co. (Basalt), McDonald Family Farm (Brush), Cone Ranch (Julesburg). The competing chefs include chef Hosea Rosenberg from Boulder’s Blackbelly Market, Will Nolan of the Viceroy Snowmass and Bill Miner of Il Porcellino Salumi. And what would a debaucherous food event be without cheese? Boulder’s Cured will supply artisan product from the Rocky Mountain Region and beyond. Partial proceeds from the event go toward Cochon 555’s charity, Piggy Bank.

Check out some heritage dairy breed success stories, right here and here. Click here to make a donation to The Livestock Conservancy.

The striking Canadienne dairy cow is critically endangered. Photo credit: Southern Ontario Heritage Livestock Club

Goat: The gift that keeps on giving

Photo credit: Heifer International

Photo credit: Heifer International

When I was growing up, my older brother and I raised dairy goats for 4-H. Thus, it was from an early age that I learned two things:

Male goats (young, uncastrated males are called bucklings; castrated goats are wethers) are a by-product of the dairy industry,

and,

By donating bucklings like ours to Heifer International, families in need worldwide are able to improve their breeding stock and thus earn a (viable) living.

The latter is the mission of Heifer International. Since 1944, the Little Rock, Arkansas-based nonprofit has provided livestock, animal husbandry and community development training to over 125 countries, with the goal of helping to “end world hunger and poverty.” That may sound like a lofty goal, but for nearly 75 years, Heifer has revitalized whole communities by creating agricultural co-ops, job skills, and commerce.

It's not all about goats for global food security. Photo credit: Heifer International

It’s not all about goats for global food security. Photo credit: Heifer International

Donating our goats to Heifer served a dual purpose in our household. My mom wasn’t comfortable selling them as meat animals, and because they were from top bloodlines, it made sense to use their genetics to diversify breeding stock, thus helping those in need. Donating to Heifer also made it easier to bid farewell to animals we’d named, bottle-fed and considered pets. Knowing they were destined to live overseas as revered breeding animals made a painful- and little-discussed- aspect of raising dairy animals less so, and for me, it sowed the proverbial seeds of a career spent educating consumers about sustainable agriculture.

Donating our goats to Heifer was the equivalent of being told to finish my dinner because there were “starving children in Africa.” But, the reality was- and is- that much of the world practices subsistence farming, and the gift of a dairy or meat animal can radically alter lives, enabling families to earn a sustainable living. As a result of improved genetics and economics (through the sale of by-products like milk, meat, eggs or fiber, as well as the muscle power provided by livestock like water buffalo and oxen), whole villages can thrive.

So, where does cheese (since we’re all about the cheese here at Haystack) fit into this global picture? Protein deficiency is a leading cause of malnutrition worldwide, and cheese and other dairy products provide a valuable dietary supplement. Cheese is also an important commodity product, and while not a staple food everywhere (climatic and religious factors play a role, which is why you don’t see cheese production in Southeast Asia or Africa, historically), dairy foods like milk, yogurt and butter are consumed worldwide. In countries like Nepal, which traditionally didn’t have a cheesemaking culture until the 1950s, the food has become an essential part of the diet and economy, thanks to foreign aid organizations.

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Yak milk supports this Nepali cheesemaker. Photo credit: Laurel Miller

While Heifer no longer accepts donations of live animals, they’ve implemented a way for everyone- from farmers to urbanites- to provide families throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe with livestock traditionally raised in their countries of origin. From goats, cattle and llamas to ducks, honeybees, rabbits and guinea pigs (known as cuy, the latter are a valuable food source in the Andes), you can donate tax-deductible funds that go toward a whole animal or animal share, which will go to a family in need.

It’s always wise to do your research before making donations to any aid organization; Heifer’s track record and data collection speak for themselves, and you can also choose to donate to their empowerment programs for women (which supply training in gender equality and business skills, and education for girls), as well as clean water, biogas cooking stoves, irrigation pumps, small business loans and more.

Donations to Heifer are affordable, too- for just $10, you can donate a goat share to a family in Africa, while $25 covers a water buffalo share. You can gift donations to family and friends through Heifer; their website enables you to create a personalized e-card. It’s not the latest version of Call of Duty or even a new pair of slippers, but there’s a certain cache to giving the gift of goat.

Happy holidays, from all of us at Haystack Mountain.

Photo credit: Heifer International

Photo credit: Heifer International

A guide to common goat breeds

Photo credit: Gamsutra

Photo credit: Gamsutra

There are dozens of different goat breeds from around the world, but here in the U.S., we tend to see just a handful (sad, but true). Goat breeds fall into three main categories, depending upon their intended use: meat, milk, or fiber. Some breeds are used for cross-purposes.

As for why breed diversity is slim pickings Stateside, one needs to understand that we’re one of the few cultures in the world that doesn’t routinely eat goat. Goat is the most widely consumed meat worldwide, and a staple throughout Latin America, Africa, Central Asia the Caribbean, Middle East, and parts of Europe.

While goat is gaining ground on North American high-end and ethnic menus, we’re just too squeamish (and anthropomorphic) for it to catch on as a mainstream protein source. It’s a shame, because goat is good eating (look for future posts on this topic).

Cultures that consume goat meat also prize their milk as a source of vital protein and other nutrients, often in the form of yogurt or cheese. In certain parts of the world, goats are even used as pack animals. For most of the planet, goat and its by-products provide subsistence, and have serious economic, as well as social, value.

We also don’t prize goats for their fiber, although we’re all familiar with cashmere (derived from the fine, silky hair of the Kashmir or Cashmere goat, or Pygora or Nigora goats), and mohair, which comes from the Angora goat (not to be confused with the Angora rabbit, which is also used for its wool).

What North Americans love goats for (besides their inherent cuteness and ability to clear brush) is milk, primarily for use in cheesemaking. The most popular dairy breeds here mostly aren’t American in origin, but were brought to this country as dairy animals. Over the generations, due to improvements in breeding stock, these breeds have become prized for their various attributes, which range from milk yield and butterfat content, to temperament and mothering abilities.

Below, a guide to the most common American goat breeds:

Nubian: Although they have a rep for being a bit bratty and exceedingly vocal, this Middle Eastern/North African breed with the beguiling long ears and Roman nose produces high-butterfat milk. The Nubian’s yield is lower than that of other breeds, which is why they’re sometimes cross-bred. In color, they often have intricate spotted, patchy, or stripey patterns.

Photo credit: Buffalo Creek Farm

Photo credit: Buffalo Creek Farm

Alpine: These robust, prolific milkers originated in the French Alps, and are one of the most popular breeds amongst cheesemakers.

Photo credit: The Goat Guide

Photo credit: The Goat Guide

LaMancha: Despite its misleading name, this “earless” breed originated in Oregon in the 1930’s. LaMancha refers to the windswept plains region of central Spain, as the breed is believed to have likely descended from the native Murciana goat. LaMancha’s do have ears, of course; it’s the pinna, or external portion, that’s missing.  They’re prized for their high yields of butterfat-rich milk, friendly nature, and hardiness.

Photo credit: etcFN

Photo credit: etcFN

Toggenburg: This very old breed from the Switzerland’s Toggenburg Valley is the Honda of goats: mid-size, sturdy, and moderate (with regard to milk yield and butterfat content).

Photo credit: Goat Genetics

Photo credit: Goat Genetics

Saanen: One of the most “goaty” looking caprines, Saanens are white-to-cream in color, with forward-pointing, slightly floppy ears and a calm temperament. They have the highest milk yield, but a low butterfat content.

Photo credit: Patteran Dairy Goats

Photo credit: Patteran Dairy Goats

Oberhasli: If ever there were a goat beauty pageant, these gregarious, russet-to-bay animals with their black dorsal stripes, legs, and muzzles (a pattern known as “chamoisee”) would kill it. Oberhasli’s are growing in popularity here, but they originated in the Swiss Alps, where they’re widely used because of their high yield and butterfat content.

Photo credit: Tangled Roots Farm

Photo credit: Tangled Roots Farm

Nigerian Dwarf: These miniature goats  of West African origin. While some cheesemakers such as Oregon’s Pholia Farm use Nigerians for their production, the breed is really making its mark on the urban goat husbandry market. Most cities require backyard goats to be crossed with Nigerians or Pygmy goats, to keep them at a manageable size. Despite their small stature, Nigerian’s produce a high volume of milk, making them ideal for caprine-loving urbanites.

Photo credit: Kivuli Kids Farm

Photo credit: Kivuli Kids Farm