By CRG staff - interview with Sarah Bowley

Ancient White Park CattleSVF Foundation preserves germplasm (semen and embryos) from rare and endangered breeds of food and fiber livestock. In collaboration with Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, SVF maintains a library of cryopreserved genetic material from rare cattle, sheep and goats. Learn more at

Sarah Bowley is Program Manager of SVF Foundation.


First things first: What goes on at Swiss Village Farm?

SVF is a cryopreservation facility focusing on rare and endangered breeds of livestock. We have a laboratory facility, a cryo room, and a surgical suite on the farm, and we collect and preserve samples - semen, embryos, cells and blood-from endangered livestock breeds, focusing on cattle, sheep and goats. We bring the animals here to the farm-collaborating with Tufts University, who provides all the veterinary care-and after we do the germplasm collection, which takes about a year for each animal, we send the animals to working farms around the country that are trying to keep these breeds going, as we say, "on the hoof."

Ancient White Park CattleCryopreservation seems pretty involved and expensive - why bother with it?

Seed banks have been well established and are an expected part of agriculture now; that's how we maintain our agricultural history and genetic diversity for plants. The notion of doing genetic preservation for livestock didn't really take off until the early 2000s. It was thanks to a lot of foresight, especially from Dr. (George) Saperstein (at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine), to say: Look, we are losing breeds at an extremely alarming rate. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, we are losing one breed of livestock per month. It has taken eight to twelve thousand years to domesticate all of these species and create the diversity within these species that has allowed humans to acclimate ourselves around the world to all these different regions, bringing livestock with us and finely tuning them through selective breeding. Now, with industrial agriculture and all the ways we manipulate the environment, the genetic base of livestock that we use has really narrowed. All of these different breeds that took us thousands of years to develop are being lost very rapidly; but if we can cryopreserve those genetics, they will be available to us even if the breed goes extinct.

Here's a question you must hear a lot: If these breeds are rare, isn't there a reason for it? Doesn't that mean that they aren't productive enough for farmers to want them?

Absolutely, but the key is that they aren't productive enough in today's agriculture. Since the 1950s we've seen a rapid shift in the way we produce food. It involves a lot of fossil fuels, and for livestock it involves a lot of intensive management. This means feeding a lot of grain, using a lot of antibiotics, using dewormers, most animals need help giving birth and then don't necessarily take care of their own babies ... because in order to mass produce food for a cheap price, we have to step in and manage the animals in each aspect of their production. What we've lost are a lot of those genetic traits that allow the animal to produce on its own. So if you put one of these finely-tuned Holstein cows out on pasture and expect it to get bred by a bull, raise a calf, eat only grass, and produce a lot of milk, you're going to fail. That's because we have provided so much for her over so many generations that she has lost that ability to reproduce and take care of her offspring on her own.

What we're really interested in representing with these rare breeds are those genetic outliers that contribute to things like mothering ability, disease resistance, parasite resistance, feed efficiency-and there are a lot of behaviors and nutritional aspects that we aren't even aware of yet. And we're losing breeds before we know what traits we're losing with them.

Why focus on cattle, sheep and goats?

When this project started in 1998, the reproductive technology for cryopreserving samples from ruminants-cattle, sheep and goats-was already there. Collecting and freezing semen and embryos has been done for cattle for a long time, and it's where a lot of the technology came from that human IVF therapies are now based on. So it wasn't a guessing game: we knew we could collect embryos from cattle, sheep and goats, freeze them, and have them be viable afterwards. The technology isn't quite there yet to allow us to successfully freeze and then utilize swine germplasm. A lot of people now freeze semen from boars, but mostly they are commercial lines, and there's a wide variation; whereas with ruminants, if you can freeze one goat's genetic material, you can freeze pretty much any goat's.

Among endangered breeds, are there any traits you especially target for preservation?

There are some cases we know of that we are especially excited to represent in our bank. Gulf Coast Native sheep are one breed that is critically endangered, but they are scientifically proven to be genetically resistant to internal parasites. There is a difference in the lining of their digestive tract which prevents parasites from latching on like they do in most sheep breeds. When a sheep is infected, the worms suck blood from the sheep's gastrointestinal tract, the sheep becomes anemic, and can eventually die with a heavy enough parasite load. Gulf Coast Native sheep are much less susceptible to this, and studies at Louisiana State University and a couple others proved the genetic link and how it actually works.

There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that accompanies most of these breeds-they're really good mothers, or their milk or their meat has different nutritional qualities-but very few of those have been scientifically studied to date. So the Gulf Coast Native sheep are exciting because it's one breed that was looked at, some money was invested into figuring out why they don't seem to be affected by parasites, and they ended up proving the genetic link.

Another trait is the Santa Cruz sheep's tail. This was a feral island population that became its own breed because it was geographically isolated for so long. They were left on an island off the coast of California, and for three or four hundred years there was no human intervention and no outbreeding with any other type of sheep. When they were taken off of the island in the 1970s, people noticed they had developed a trait where they shed their wool-since there was nobody to shear them on the island-and they had developed something called "rat tail," a very short, woolless tail. Tail docking is a problem in the sheep industry; people feel that it's inhumane, but if you leave the tail on then when it gets dirty, especially when it's time to lamb and in the summer, the sheep can have serious problems with flies. So it's inhumane whether you leave the tail on or take it off; but with sheep that have these small, woolless tails, there's no need to dock.

Traits like that can develop in these island breeds. Unfortunately, the Santa Cruz breed is not only critically endangered, it's also really hard to get anybody to work with them because they're not economically viable-they're very small, they don't produce a lot of wool, and they don't grow a very heavy lamb. It's hard to convince farmers to invest in this kind of sheep just because it could have useful traits for farmers in the future, but it's one that we represent in our collection here. If we isolate that genetic trait for short tails, we may be able to introduce it into commercial sheep breeds, which would be a major change in the industry.

It seems like there's a theme here-a lot of the breeds SVF works with developed survival traits as a feral population.

There are two main categories of breeds that we're looking at. One is the heritage breeds, which have a kind of cool, cultural story that accompany them. These are the ones we think of as what our forefathers brought over, the cattle that gave you milk and pulled the plow and then you ate it at the end of its productive life.

The other type are the ones that were feral, the island or landrace breeds. These have some of the more interesting genetic characteristics because for generations it was survival of the fittest. They had to raise their own babies, find their own food, and develop some sort of parasite or disease resistance if they were going to survive to carry on their genetic traits.

When we at SVF are trying to explain our mission to the public, two things that we like to bring up are dog breeds and the Irish potato famine. When people are confused about why there are different types of cows or different types of sheep, we talk about how there are different types of dogs. Dogs are one species, but we have developed many different breeds to suit our purposes; you would never ask a German Shepherd to do what a collie does, or vice versa. We've done the same thing with cows: they are adapted for different parts of the world and different jobs we need them to do.

And the Irish potato famine is a good example of monoculture. Irish peasant farmers relied on one variety of potato, and when blight came through and wiped out that potato crop, millions of people starved or were displaced because they only had one variety of crop available to them. Unfortunately, that's the situation we are replicating with the Holstein today. We have come to rely on one very inbred type of cow to provide over 95% of all our dairy products. If we get some superbug that comes along and wipes out the Holsteins, we're going to be in a lot of trouble, because we haven't supported those other populations to fall back on.

The Irish potato famine was caused by late blight; for cattle, do you have any idea what that superbug might be?

Not at this point, but if you talk to any dairy farmer, they are very aware that the Holsteins are a susceptible population. There's an estimated effective population of 34 individuals among the whole Holstein-Friesian population. So it's a pretty fragile, inbred population that we're relying on. If you look at other breeds, there may only be 400 American Milking Devon cattle left, but their genetic diversity is actually much more than the Holsteins, even though there are so many more Holsteins out there.

Instead of a superbug, could it be something like skyrocketing grain prices, where it would become a problem to rely on breeds designed for grain instead of grass?

Absolutely. And we're seeing a lot more interest in these breeds as the sustainable farming movement grows. It's no longer just a fad to have a rare breed. These smaller production breeds are really fitting into grass-based farming, going back to these types of farming that are easier on the environment. They're not high production or high output breeds, but they usually do very well fitting into a small farm with multiple species on it or that has both crops and livestock.

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