The Unusual Suspects Raising Unique Farm Animals

Published on Wed, 06/18/2014 - 9:49am

You can find all kinds of creatures on farms and acreages: horses, cattle, chickens, maybe even the occasional goose. But for some rural landowners, that’s not enough. They glaze over at the sight of “standard” livestock breeds, and can barely stifle a yawn when seeing working donkeys or grazing sheep.

No, being different is what puts the pounding in their pulse. And for some, the more offbeat, the better. Keep your eyes peeled for the unusual, and you will be surprised at the odd critters that inhabit America’s farmlands. We’ve taken a look at just a few:

Oreo cookie cattle
An old Scottish breed, Belted Galloway cattle have been recorded as far back as the sixteenth century. “Belties” were developed to survive in the rugged, hilly Scottish coastline. 

The distinctive belted—or sheeted—coloring sets them apart from other breeds. Most are black-white-black, although there are numerous herds where dun (a dull-grayish brown) or red can be seen. Regardless of color, their patterned hides attract attention.

According to the U.S. Belted Galloway Society, the first of these cattle were imported in 1939. They are a thrifty, easy-weight-gaining breed and are hardy enough to survive harsh climates. They have inner and outer coats for insulation, and are said to thrive on the lush grasses offered here in America. Belties are bred for their lean, flavorful meat.”

Hook ’em horns
College football fans in Texas know the “hook ’em” gesture—the thumb holding down the middle and ring fingers while index and pinky stretch high, suggesting the head of a Longhorn. But this gesture is a far cry from actual Texas Longhorn cattle. With their long, tapered horns reaching more than six feet, this distinctly American breed is easy to spot.

There is some controversy among experts about the lineage of Texas Longhorns. We know that cattle were introduced from Spain in the 1490s, but successive waves of New World explorers likely brought additional genetics into play. Longhorn fans (of the breed, not the teams) do tend to agree that several hundred years of “feral” cattle roaming the ranges produced a hardy stock uniquely adapted to the rigors of the southwest.

Survival of the fittest means that today’s Longhorns have advantages over other domesticated breeds. They are resistant to many common cattle parasites and can grow and gain weight from minimal forages. 

Horns aplenty In J. Frank Dobie’s book The Longhorns, he describes an episode which occurred in the mid-nineteenth century on Noah Smithwick’s property near Bushy Creek, Texas. Smithwick had a herd of domesticated cattle, but there were also wild longhorns nearby. He described the following: “Two of the [longhorned] bulls took up with Smithwick’s cattle and became ‘quite domesticated.’ About the same time, lobo wolves began to depredate. When the milch cows and other gentle stock were attacked, they would try to get to the house. The wild cattle, on the other hand, ‘would form a ring around their calves and, presenting a line of horns, would fight the lobos off.’ ”  Source: The Longhorn Marketing Alliance


Do the Watusi
For sheer traffic-stopping power, almost no cattle breed can approach the Ankole-Watusi. This outrageously-horned breed originated in equatorial Africa, specifically Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. The impressive strain of cattle was owned and bred by Tutsi kings and chiefs, and were often considered sacred, according to some experts.

Brought to European zoos in the late nineteenth century for the “gee-whiz” aspect of their horn’s girth, these cattle eventually found their way into private hands in the U.S. around 1960. By 1983, the Ankole Watusi International Registry was formed.

Generally not as large and bony as a Longhorn, Ankole-Watusi cattle do well in similar hot climates, their huge horns acting as radiators to cool the animal. African breeders prize upright crescent or lyre-shaped horns, while American breeders tend to favor broad lateral reach, not unlike the Longhorn. Also like the Longhorn, these cattle will react to predators with horns facing outward toward the threat.


The Rapunzel of pigs
Up close, the Mangalitsa looks more like something created in Jim Henson’s Muppet factory than a highly-valued heritage breed of pig. City folks might even ask if it is a sheep crossed with a pig. 

Compared with animals bred for today’s style of pork production, the Mangalitsa is downright odd: Instead of a smooth, shorthaired hide, Mangalitsas are covered in flowing hair, long enough to be brushed. Some strains even display curly blond coats.

Originally from the Austria-Hungary Empire, Mangalitsas are growing in popularity in Europe and have recently started to pop-up on U.S. farms. Their emergence in the U.S. is thought to be attributed to the burgeoning foodie movement—pork from the Mangalitsa breed has remarkable flavor. From its marbling and age—they are twice as old at slaughter as the pig that gives you supermarket bacon—Mangalitsa pork has fans comparing it to Kobe beef.


Buddy, can you spare a camel?
Here in the U.S., nothing stops traffic like seeing a camel—they are so unfamiliar and unusual-looking, anyone driving by will do a double-take and say, “Hey, I just saw a [bleeping] camel!”

So, why raise camels here? One reason is their milk has recently been hailed as a “superfood,” said to carry numerous health benefits. Among them, according to the Camel Milk Association, is that camel milk is the closest to human milk and can be ingested by those who are lactose-intolerant without ill effect. 

It is rich in healthy vitamins and minerals, especially B vitamins and iron, and is thought to have surprisingly positive effects in boosting immune response. Some researchers have even linked raw camel milk to positive treatments in cancer, diabetes, and autism.

One hump, or two? Do you know how to tell the difference between a Dromedary and a Bactrian? The easiest way to remember is when you see a camel, tilt your head to the side. A Bactrian camel’s two humps look like a capital letter B on its side, while the Dromedary’s single hump looks like a capital D.


“Got your elk yet?”
That greeting is a common conversation-starter among hunters in Wyoming and other rugged western states. Increasingly, though, ranchers are asking about animals kept inside the fences.

The elk—or wapiti—is one of North America’s largest wild deer species, with males tipping the scales at more than 1000 pounds and standing five feet tall or better at the shoulder—not to mention their truly impressive racks. In the wild, wapiti is a much-sought-after hunting target. Not only is their meet considered even better than bison—with less cholesterol—there is also plenty of it. A bull elk can “dress out” at 500 pounds.

In addition to meat, elk farms harvest the velvet, which comes from the antlers of mature males. Certain Asian markets value the velvet for “rejuvenation” products and food supplements. Here in the U.S., we typically don’t ingest elk velvet, but it is finding its way into “all-natural” cosmetics.

A set of huge wapiti antlers on display above a fireplace still has appeal for many. Ranchers with plenty of land will offer their elk for hunting and set up an outfitting business. So, if you’re driving down the road and see fences that are eight feet tall—or higher—chances are that is an elk farm. They can jump like nobody’s business.

Why raise wapiti? Canadian Russell Sawchuk, who established, has identified four main reasons why people get into the elk business. 
Love of the animals – Many elk farmers are avid hunters. They love elk, but spending several weeks in the bush looking for them is not enough. By farming them, they can enjoy trophy bulls all year round. 
Diversification – According to U.S. statistics, about two-thirds of American farms lose money every year. Farmers have found raising elk a viable way to spread their risk and diversify.
Money – Some people enter the business as an investment, with the expectation of significant returns, but there are also significant risks.
Hobby – Some people who have the financial resources raise elk as a hobby, just as others raise horses or dogs. Since elk require little labor—they almost look after themselves—they are a good choice for a hobby-farmer.
Sources: North American Elk Breeders Association and Russell Sawchuk,


Avoiding buyer’s remorse
The history of raising exotic, non-standard farm animals is littered with failed attempts. Special-interest blogs and message boards are filled with advice from those who tried-and-failed, having been lured in by promises of being able to command high prices. 

Usually, one can make some money supplying breeding stock while the market is on the way up, but profits are hard to come by once the market flattens out. It can often seem like a pyramid scheme in that there can be little to no profit without constant growth of the customer base. This can lead farmers to regret starting the venture altogether. 

Just because you love a particular breed or species doesn’t mean it is a good idea to raise them—in some areas, it may not even be legal. Before deciding to acquire non-standard farm animals as a business choice, do your research before you invest. 

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