Livestock Breeding Strategies For When SHTF – Part 1, by S.W.

Since my high school days, I have dedicated my spare time to breeding quality creatures– parakeets, gerbils, rabbits, cats, and canaries. As I see my country disintegrating, I am adding skills in heating with wood and growing fruits, vegetables, meat, and eggs. I currently enjoy breeding and showing canaries, and I think about how hard it will be to keep these beautiful but impractical creatures going when so much time and effort has to go into human survival issues. How few pairs can I retain to keep a strain or variety going without loss due to inbreeding?

Actually, this question applies also to the practical animals we need in survival situations. So I am writing about the practical animals and questions regarding their breeding, like how many we need and how we breed them so as to keep them going for what could be a 10-year period before life normalizes.

I begin with animals having long generation intervals of six to ten years and then those with medium generation intervals– four or five years. A generation interval is the average age at which a species reproduces itself. The long generation interval species we breed in North America are horses and asses.

Horses, today, are mainly pleasure animals, but when the economy collapses and petroleum products become difficult or impossible to acquire, they could again become very practical. They are preferred draft animals, due to speed and trainability, but they require good quality, careful feeding and are susceptible to disease and injury. Horses are useful for logging, farming, and hauling.

The most practical draft breeds are the ones with smooth legs, as the hairy leg breeds are liable to skin problems. Percherons have good action for heavy hauling. Belgians have power for pulling heavy logs. Suffolks were bred specifically for farm work. In using these animals for farm power, one-quarter of the land must be dedicated to growing their feed. I would not use the large breeds for farming on less than 20 acres. A light breed, which eats less, can work smaller farms, plowing 1.5 acres a day. Practical breeds for this are Morgans, Welsh Cobs, Quarter horses, Hafflingers, and Icelandics. Light horses, especially Quarter horses, are more readily available. Select old type Morgans and Quarter horses, not ones bred for showing or racing.

Because of care demands, three to five mares are as many as would be practical for one person to care for on a part-time basis. Stallions are difficult to keep. Because they have a long working/breeding life, 10 to 15 years, the best strategy to keep a line going under difficult circumstances is to hand-mate mares to local stallions and have enough people doing this that when commerce and communication resumes, bloodlines can be combined. A mature stallion can hand mate up to 100 mares a season; a two year old can hand mate 10 mares.

Asses are intelligent and tractable, and they are considered by people familiar with both horses and asses to be safer to handle. They can pull carts, plows, harrows, and weeders and pack loads. They are smaller and less powerful than horses, averaging 12 hands and 385 lbs. They are said to be able to carry 1/3 of their body weight and haul three times their weight by cart. They are also more amenable to boring tasks like threshing or operating a treadmill or wheel for generating electricity. A 150 kg donkey has a power output of 200 watts working four hours a day, while a 400 kg horse has a power output of 500 watts working 10 hours a day ( Therefore, one would need two donkeys to do the work of one light breed horse. One can work an ass six hours a day with one hour rests after every two hours of work.

Asses are browsers rather than grass eaters, like horses, so they can survive on poorer quality, high fiber roughage. Mules require one-third less grain than horses the same size. Both asses and mules are hardier than horses. One could probably care for 5 to 10 jennies on a part-time basis. They are most valuable in arid areas, second only to camels in water conservation.

Regarding breeding strategies for these long-lived species, the entire males are difficult to handle and impractical for the average person. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) recommends a network of breeders and a minimum of three sire lines bred to a female band consecutively or sequentially, until suitable replacements are raised. They consider 10 females per line, 30 total, as a minimum. I will deal with their strategy in more detail with the next group of animals. A jack can hand mate 5 to 30 jennies a year.

For anyone planning on farming with draft animals, one must consider that plowing with animals requires more and certainly a different skill than driving a tractor. It is important to acquire this skill soon. Also, consider how few animals are trained for farm work. While horses will likely be easy to get when the economy gets really bad, a horse trained for riding is harder to train for pulling than one first trained to pull. I believe asses need training when quite young as well, and their training is not exactly the same as training that works for horses. Also, in most parts of North America, asses are not commonly raised. So if they are desired, a breeding network needs to be arranged.

When considering food animals in North America, the most numerous breeds have been selected for high production under heavy inputs of feed, veterinary care, and management systems. When these inputs fail, breeds not so selected will outperform them. We need to focus on animals utilizing feeds that are not directly useful for human food and animals that are easy to manage and hardy under less than optimal conditions.

Beef is a widely accepted and preferred meat. One hectare produces 57 to 65 kg of crude protein from grain-fed beef and 27 kg from grass fed beef. This is not very efficient, especially considering that grain, such as corn, competes directly with corn for human energy food and for fuel energy as ethanol. The grass-fed beef, on the other hand, if produced on non-arable land, does not so compete. In fact, on arid grasslands where rainfall is 600 mm (24”) per year, range cattle provide an efficient subsistence base in areas otherwise unproductive for humans.

There are two species of cattle, Bos taurus, a temperate climate species, and Bos indicus, the humped tropical climate species. They are fully fertile when crossed but were bred in isolation for so long they can be accurately categorized as subspecies. The Bos taurus species produces the most palatable beef. Habitat consists of brush free tall grass ranges, 8-15% slopes. A wooded area at the top of a hill provides adequate winter shelter. For part-time labor, 21 to 50 cows with offspring butchered off grass at 15 to 24 months of age is a manageable size. Most areas in the U.S. require hay-making equipment and storage space for winter feeding. Corrals and chutes are also needed.

In third world countries, oxen are the most commonly used draft animals. They tolerate hardship, mud, and snow better than many other animals. They are used to draw carts, to plow, plant, cultivate, spread fertilizer, mow, and rake crops, build dams and ponds, and operate rotary devices. They can work between four and nine hours a day for an 8-year working life. The Bos indicus species utilizes 3.3 joules of food energy from coarse crops, such as straw or sparse grass, per joule output in work energy.

The dairy cow is the most efficient animal protein producer at 33.1% conversion. She produces 118 kg crude protein per hectare. Her habitat is grass pasture on gently sloping (3-8%) land and 700 mm annual precipitation or cheap irrigation. Dairying requires high labor and management skills. Hand-milking takes 40 minutes per cow per day; unweaned calves require 20 minutes per day; and weaned calves take 7-10 minutes per day. In high rainfall areas, silage or haylage is used if hay is too costly to make or transport. Bull calves can be raised to 200 pounds at 6-8 weeks for veal, kept 6-12 months and sold as feeder or draft calves, or grown out for beef at 12 to 16 months of age. For part-time labor, consider three to nine milk cows or eight to ten dual-purpose cows.

In temperate climates, if one desires to raise cattle strictly for beef where the amount and quality and/or consistency of nutrients is low, the medium-sized British breeds are better choices than the large Continental European breeds. The Hereford is the ideal range breed and makes an excellent draft animal, especially if horned for head yokes. The oxen average 2200 lbs. and are among the easiest to train. The Angus and Beef Shorthorn are also good beef breeds, but they do better on pastures than rough ranges. The Saler is a beef breed that tolerates sub-optimal care and nutrition and is the only Continental breed really suitable for range life. Native to France, it was once a triple-purpose milk, draft, and beef breed. So, if one wants primarily beef but also a cow that produces a bit more milk than her calf needs, the Saler is a good choice. In France they give about 11 quarts of milk a day, which is used to make a good cheese. They have had a reputation in this country for wildness but are currently selected for docility. So select from stock with good docility scores.

Among the milk cow breeds, the Black and White Holstein is the most productive and most numerous. They have high upkeep requirements, produce too much milk for a family cow, and are not good rustlers. During the dry season in Guatemala, I observed Holsteins at a milking. They appeared to give no more milk than the goats I milked in Oregon. They do make great oxen at 2500 lb. mature size and are fairly easy to train.[1]

The Ayrshire probably produces more milk on poor pasture than any other breed. One can graze 2.5 Ayrshires per hectare (one cow per acre). The oxen reach 1600-2000 lbs. and have wonderful horns, but they are difficult to train.

The milking Shorthorn is a productive milk cow, which produces better beef than the Ayrshire and is also very desirable for draft with oxen reaching 2300 lbs. They are fairly easy to train, so this can be considered a triple-purpose breed. Be sure to get pure American strains, as those crossed to produce greater quantities of milk do not produce as well on grass-based systems.

Another triple-purpose breed is the Brown Swiss. They are good rustlers, tolerating rough conditions. They produce better meat and 2400 lb. oxen that are among the most trainable.

Another triple-purpose breed is the rare Dutch Belt. They are 2000 lb. oxen and very trainable. The dual-purpose milk-meat breeds, due to high solids nonfat milk, make good cheese. The Dutch Belt produces well on grass.

Some special purpose breeds to consider are the small breeds. The Dexter is the smallest breed, requiring only 2/3 of an acre (3.25/ha) for grazing, producing a third as much milk as the average milk cow, and it’s an acceptable beef calf. Oxen are only 1000 lb. and hard to train. The Guernsey is strictly a milk cow but produces milk high in butterfat and is more easily managed than the Jersey, another small cow that produces milk high in butterfat. These all have value as family cows.

In the subtropical U.S., the Bos indicus breeds and crossbreeds, such as the Beefmaster, can be considered for beef production. Breeds like the Red Sindhi Zebu are bred for milk production, and the Gir Zebu is a triple-purpose breed. Miniature Zebus, available in the U.S., mature at 400 lbs., graze at 5/ha, and are said to give a gallon of milk per day. The Bos indicus cattle work harder and faster than Bos taurus and conserve water better in hot temperatures. I would be concerned about temperament. The wildest domestic animal I ever encountered was a Brahman-Jersey cross.

A common system of mating beef cattle in a closed herd (no introduction of outside stock) is the clan system. Three or more dam families are set up, A, B, and C. A family sons mate B family cows; B sons mate only C cows; and C sons mate A cows. Bulls are used for two seasons and always to the next family in rotation. Females stay in their own family and are kept as long as productive. One could easily go 10 years with this system. This requires three breeding pastures, so if one chooses to run a 30 cow herd, it would mean one bull with 10 cows per enclosure. If one runs three bulls with 30 cows in one pasture and selects out three bulls and 30 cows at random each generation, theoretically inbreeding would increase about 5% per generation. However, matings would not likely be truly random, as the more dominant bulls would breed more than their share of cows.

The ALBC system proposes the three family system, using as a minimum three bulls on all 30 cows sequentially. The A bull breeds all cows A, B, and C the first season and the A/A bull calves are kept to select a replacement for the A bull. The other bull calves are not used as replacements, but all the heifer calves can be replacements. The next year the B bull is used on all 30 cows with B/B bull calves kept to replace him. No other bull calves are kept, and all the heifers are potential replacements. The third year the C bull is used on all the cows and also the 1st year heifers, the As, A/Bs, and A/Cs. He will be replaced by a C/C son and his daughters out of A/C heifers, being ¾ of the C line will then be considered C line dams. The 4th breeding season uses the A/A bull, now two years old, on all the cows and replacement heifers. Offspring produced each year are considered linebred if more than ½ A, B or C line or line crossed, if no more than half of any one line.

The advantages of this system are two-fold. First, it requires only one breeding pasture. Secondly, with inbreeding occurring in different directions, genetic differences between different lines are maintained within the population. Animals that are inbred to the A line may be mated to a B or C line to produce an outbred offspring. The clan system minimizes inbreeding over random mating but only slows it down. It still occurs through the entire line and always in the same direction, so no outcross is available within the herd[2]. Of course, you will want to keep the best two or three bull calves of each line to ensure against losing a line bull. It is easier to house a few young non-breeding bulls together than to divide a pasture into three or more breeding units. The bulls can be retired after their respective breeding season.

Currently, dairy cattle are almost always bred by artificial insemination. The advantages are:

  1. You need not keep a bull, which is an added expense in labor, space, and feed, plus they can be dangerous.
  2. Experts select and test the best prospects very scientifically for producing calves with desirable production traits. However, when transportation, communication, refrigeration, et cetera break down, artificial insemination will not be an option. Therefore, to maintain milk cows during a 10-year period of infrastructure breakdown, bulls need to be kept locally.

A Holstein cow can supply three to five families of four with as much fluid milk, butter, and cheese as we are used to eating. Since many of them will be around as the most numerous breed, the main problem will be milking them without electricity. Dairy farms probably have back-up generators, but how long will fuel for them last?

The Ayrshire, Milking Shorthorn, Dutch Belt, Guernsey, and Jersey will supply three families. The Dexter is just right for one family, and the Miniature Zebu and perhaps Saler would supply one person with enough dairy products for them plus a calf.

My recommendation would be to organize an informal community supported dairy of say 30 Dexter cows and 10 cow caretakers, each milker with three cows supplying two other households. Six bulls (two minimum for each of three lines) need to be kept somewhere within 16 miles of where the cows are. When a cow is detected in heat, she should be bred eight hours later. This means a trip to the bull on foot and 16 miles is probably as far as she will walk within eight hours. A coordinator can divide the cows and bulls into the three ALBC system groups and plan the appropriate matings and replacements.

If people in the community desire to use the bulls as draft animals, the better breeds to use than Dexters would be Brown Swiss, Dutch Belt, or Milking Shorthorn. One person can manage ten dual-purpose cows on a part-time basis, so any of these breeds could be maintained sustainably by three individuals with ten cows each. Half the cows could raise two calves each, and the other half milked for human consumption. Alternatively, each cow could suckle her own calf plus be milked. The milker milks out two teats into the bucket and leaves the other two for the calf to suckle for one-half hour after each milking. These techniques save on labor but milk yield will be less than bucket feeding calves for 10 weeks.

With ten families managing three Dexters each, the group would need 20 consumers. With three families managing ten dual-purpose breeds each, the group would need 44 to 87 consumers


[1] Information on ease of training and working draft oxen from Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide by Drew Conray, a Rural Heritage Book, Gainesboro, Tn. 1999

[2] A Conservation Breeding Handbook, American Livestock Breed Conservancy, 1995, Pgs. 80-85