Chatham County

These long horns aren't longhorns. How an NC farmer is sustaining a rare cattle breed


Bruce Petesch, a cattle farmer in Chatham County, favors Heritage Breeds like the Pineywoods to help sustain the genetic diversity in the species.
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Bruce Petesch, a cattle farmer in Chatham County, favors Heritage Breeds like the Pineywoods to help sustain the genetic diversity in the species.

When an 800-pound cow stares you down, you take notice.

When she's a new mother with a pair of two-foot horns pointed in your direction because you're a bit closer to her calf than she likes, you really take notice.

"It's all right," Bruce Petesch calmly said to his heifer. "We're not going to do anything. We just want to see."

The rust-colored calf was nestled in some tall grass away from the herd. It had been born the previous day and was still unsure of its surroundings.

It's a sight Petesch has witnessed seven times already this spring, and one that will happen again when the last of his pregnant cows gives birth in the next week or so. When that calf is born, it will make nine additions to his herd of Pineywoods cattle — which is the total number of animals he started with a decade ago.

When Petesch retired from his career as a labor attorney in Raleigh to become a cattle and horse farmer, little did he realize that he would be at the forefront of the movement to save endangered cows. Petesch, his wife Marge, and an orange cat now call rural Chatham County home. Petesch, who sports a craggy, white beard befitting a veteran cowboy, said he often takes time to listen to his cows mooing and the crickets chirping.

His small herd of about 50 Pineywoods cattle belong to a breed the Livestock Conservancy considers threatened because there are fewer than 3,000 left. They are scattered among farms in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Petesch's first cattle came from Mississippi, including his bull "Pete."

These cows represent one of numerous breeds of farm animals that largely were ignored when industrial-style production became standard in the early part of the last century. It takes about the same 18-24 months for a Pineywoods to mature, but they don't grow quite as large as the market-leading Angus.

Petesch markets some of his surplus animals as breeding stock to other farmers and others are slaughtered and processed for their meat.

But it's not just cows. Some breeds of pigs, like the Gloucestershire Old Spots, or sheep, like the Leicester Longwool, are threatened, too. Rare breeds of chickens and goats are also monitored.

The Livestock Conservancy, which is based in Pittsboro, calls these breeds "Heritage Breeds" because the roots of many date to the original New World explorers and settlers.

The Pineywoods cattle were brought to America in the 1500s when the Spanish tried to settle what now is Florida. When the Spanish gave up, they abandoned everything, including their livestock. The animals roamed freely in southern pine forests, hence their name, for about 300 years until farmers started collecting them into herds.

Fast-forward another 200 years and this breed isn't as popular as the Angus found on grocery store meat shelves and steak house menus. But it has its place among smaller producers like Petesch, who wanted a mild-tempered breed with relatively low maintenance requirements.

"They are self sufficient," Petesch said. "They graze the land. They don't require much with calving. They're really gentle."

Heritage livestock and poultry may not be as efficient as the mainstream breeds, but they are important for their genetics and traits, said Jeannette Beranger of the Livestock Conservancy.

This week, May 20-26, is "International Heritage Breeds Week." Fifteen livestock conservation organizations from around the world are trying to raise awareness about rare farm animals by highlighting their relevance for family farmers.

There are nine cattle breeds on the critical list and three more, including the Pineywoods on the threatened list. Eight breeds of pigs are considered critical or threatened by the organization. Chickens have the longest list with 22 that are critical or threatened.

"Every time we lose a breed, we lose a little bit of diversity for the species," Beranger said. "These breeds may have a trait that at some point could be really important to agriculture in the future, such as disease resistance, ability to thrive in a challenging environment, mothering skills and so forth. If they were to disappear, there is no way to create them."

Beranger also raises Crevecoeur chickens, a crested breed with onyx-colored feathers with a hint of green. They're from France and nearly were wiped out during World War II. Crevecoeurs had been that country's primary table bird until then, she said. The numbers dwindled to a few hundred birds. They've rebounded in recent years but remain on the critical list.

Recently, she took one of her roosters to New York City for a meeting at Conde Nast. The lifestyle publishing house was putting together a feature on farm-to-table restaurants and used her rooster as an example, she said.

The recent popularity surge in raising backyard chickens has allowed Beranger to find new Crevecoeur growers. This week she had a dozen chicks in an office cage destined for a backyard coop in Wake Forest.

But Beranger cautioned that a backyard barnyard is not for everybody.

"You really have to be committed," she said. "We generally work with farmers who want to help these breeds survive. We work really hard to match people with the right animals for them."