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Conservation and value of local livestock breeds: usefulness of niche products and/or adaptation to specific environments

E. Verrier[2] M. Tixier-Boichard[2] R. Bernigaud[3] & M. Naves[4]

Dedication. The first author dedicates this paper to the memory of his brothers François and Philippe with whom he used to hike in the northern Alps this area being one of the case-studies of the paper.


Two cases of livestock production involving French local breeds are analysed. The first shows how a high quality product under AOC (Protected Designation of Origin - PDO) has been defined for the Bresse chicken breed formely kept by fancy breeders. The second shows the role of the local cattle breeds Abondance and Tarentaise in both the use of mountain areas and the development of PDO products. How to consider such values in a public policy dealing with farm animal genetic resources is discussed.


Deux situations d'élevage impliquant des races locales françaises sont analysées. On montre tout d'abord comment une production de haute qualité la volaille de Bresse sous Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) est fondée sur l'utilisation de la race locale du même nom anciennement conservée par des éleveurs "amateurs". Le second exemple montre le rôle des races bovines des Alpes du Nord Abondance et Tarentaise simultanément dans l'exploitation des zones d'altitude et le développement de produits AOC. On discute de la manière appropriée de tenir compte de telles aptitudes et fonctions des races locales dans une politique publique de gestion des ressources génétiques animales.

Keywords: Protected Designation of Origin Adaptation traits Chicken Dairy cattle.


The evolution of livestock production during the 20th century in Europe was characterised by the specialization and intensification of production. Public policies supported up to the seventies the use of a small number of specialized breeds. In some cases as in France the purpose was to put all material and financial resources into a small number of breeding schemes in order to improve their efficiency
as argued by Quittet (1963). Sometimes such a policy was simply due to a special view of what modernity shoud be (e.g. Rigoni Stern 1986 Chapter 31).

However in the seventies there were many calls for the conservation of local breeds as a unique genetic resource: for example one may refer to the work done in the United Kingdom by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust or in France by the Société d’Ethnozootechnie the Institut Technique de l’Elevage Bovin and the Institut Technique du Porc. The conservation of animal genetic resources has been included within public policies at regional national and European levels. Since the nineties the Common Agricultural Policy has included a financial support to breeders keeping reproducing females of rare breeds of domestic ruminants pigs and equidae.

Simple criteria are required for the successful application of any public policy. For instance the list of the endangered breeds to be supported by the European union was established on the basis of simple data such as the numbers of reproducing animals. More elaborate rules based upon the use of molecular polymorphisms have been proposed following the approach developed by Weitzman (1992 1993) in order to assess the global diversity of a set of breeds and the marginal diversity of a given breed (Thaon d’Arnoldi et al. 1998; Simianer 2002). Simianer (2002) also proposed to include some utility values of a given breed (e.g. adaptation trait) and Gandini and Villa (2003) proposed an analytical approach to the cultural value of a breed. The purpose of this paper is to show through two French examples how local breeds may have considerable value for niche production and/or adaptation to a special environment both conditions being highly favourable for their conservation.

AOC Production with the Bresse Chicken Breed

Differentiation in the chicken meat production

The French production of chicken meat is differentiated into several categories: standard broiler (SB) label chicken (LB) certified chicken (CF) organic chicken and Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC = Protected Designation of Origin) for the Bresse breed only. In terms of chicken numbers LB production represented nearly 100 million chickens raised throughout France in 2002 ( whereas the Bresse AOC represented 1.4 million chickens raised only in the Bresse geographical area as defined by law. The LB category was created as early as 1965 to promote product quality throughout the production process. The LB and CF legal definitions do not require reference to a particular breed but only slow-growing lines are eligible. These slow-growing lines are generally characterized by a colored phenotype which creates a clear distinction from the white plumage of standard broilers.

As compared to LB the AOC follows a quite different philosophy: a geographical district has to be defined and characterized by specific features of the natural conditions and production system which cannot be found in another geographical area. For the Bresse the district was defined as early as 1936 and the protection of the name "Volaille de Bresse" was enshrined in law number 57-866 on August 1 1957.

The first two conditions required are a defined geographical area namely the Bresse region (including most of the Ain and Saône-et-Loire administrative districts) and a defined chicken breed in this case the Bresse breed with white plumage blue shanks single comb red wattles white earlobes and white skin (Figure 1). The occurrence of blue shanks is determined by a single sex-linked recessive gene called ID and the association of white plumage and blue shanks is rare among French poultry breeds (Periquet 1994). After an initial starting period of 5 weeks a fixed set of growing conditions (density open-air access type of feed) must applied for at least 9 weeks. The finishing period has to take place in a specific housing system (an épinette) using a specific feed including milk for at least 8 days for males and 4 weeks for fattened pullets and capons. Specific regulations also apply to slaughtering and processing of the carcass.

Figure 1. Bress cock (photo by Comité Interprofessionnel de la Volaille de Bresse).

Selection of the Bresse chicken breed

Since 1995 the selection procedure for the Bresse breed has also been strictly regulated. The breeding goals are discussed yearly by an inter-professionnal committee (CIVB) comprising representatives of the production chain (breeders producers distributors etc.) and a scientific institution. The selection procedure is based upon pedigree records and the founder lines are qualified by French Federation of Poultry and Fish breeding companies (SYSAAF).

In the initial stages of the Bresse AOC founder birds were sampled from fancy breeders in the geographical area defined by the law. They had to follow the breed phenotypic standard and they were submitted to veterinary treatments in order to eradicate the most common diseases. In this way a Bresse population with a ‘clean’ sanitary status was obtained. It was subdivided into two Bresse sublines one being selected on body weight the other on egg production. The selection intensity was mild and the two sublines were crossed to produce the commercial chicken. Such a crossbreeding strategy is usual in poultry except that here it was done within a single breed. In order to further improve robustness a new sampling procedure took place within the stocks of fancy breeders again in the Bresse region. This event led to the creation of a third subline which is now used in a three-way cross to produce the commercial Bresse chicken.

Organisation of the production and specific rules for the Bresse AOC

There is only one breeding centre the Centre de Sélection de la Volaille de Bresse (CSBV) and three hatcheries multiplying chicks from the lines selected at the CSVB. There are about 500 producers in the Bresse AOC two thirds are organised into collective production units and one third are independent producers. Chickens are identified by a producer-specific tag to be attached to the leg before shipment to the slaughter house. The total number of Bresse chickens produced annually is about 1.35 million. 950 000 are sold by nine slaughter houses and 350 000 are sold directly by producers. Requirements for the processing of the carcass and criteria for disqualification are prescribed by law. Carcasses are tagged with a Bresse label before being shipped to the retailers. In 1986 a production commission was created with eight members representing producers slaughter houses and professionnal cooks. Sales of Bresse poultry take place almost exclusively via small retailers and restaurants and not via supermarkets.

The age at slaughter of Bresse chickens must be at least 112 days and up to about 150 days. In comparison the strains used for LB or SB production are slaughtered between 81 and 110 days of age or at around 39 days of age respectively. The minimum live weight at departure for the slaughter house is 1.5 kg for male Bresse chickens whereas the average reaches 2.25 kg for LB and 1.9 kg for SB. A minimum carcass weight is fixed for Bresse chickens: 1.2 1.8 and 3.0 kg for males females and capons respectively. From the view point of economic profitability slow-growing chickens are not as efficient as standard broilers with regard to food conversion and stocking density. These extra costs have to be accepted by consumers who are ready to pay more for a product of higher quality. The reference product for prices is the whole chicken ready to be cooked (PAC). In 2002 the average price paid to Bresse producers was 4.0 Euros per PAC kg which provided a gross profit of 2.6 Euros per chicken sold (source: CIVB). On the other hand in the national wholesale market in Rungis (close to Paris) the average price was equal to 2.7 and 1.6 Euros per PAC kg for label and standard chicken respectively (source: OFIVAL).

The successful development of the AOC started from the conservation of Bresse chickens by fancy breeders. The number of white Bresse chickens increased and stabilised at a level where the breed is no longer endangered. Besides the favorable effect of the AOC on the conservation of the White Bresse it must be noted that any chicken that hatches from White Bresse parents but is raised outside the official Bresse region cannot be called a Bresse chicken. A new name was chosen for chickens meeting these criteria. Chickens related to the Bresse breed but not raised in the Bresse region are now called either Gauloise or Bresse Gauloise. This tends to complicate the definition of breeds. The strict regulations defining the Bresse AOC are protecting a production system and a breed in a given region. However they could limit its extension and adaptability to new constraints. Consequently the CSVB may now use other traditional breeds in order to make available to consumers a larger choice of quality chickens based upon the revival of old traditional breeds. The creation of genealogical selection based on the sampling of chickens from fancy breeders using strict sanitary conditions is now a proven method that can be applied to other breeds.

The Use of High Altitude Pastures by the Abondance and Tarentaise Cattle Breeds and AOC Cheese Production in the Northern Alps

Evolution of the farming system and of the local breeds up to the early 1980’s

The French northern Alps are world famous for their landscapes and their extensive opportunities for tourism and sport during both the summer and winter seasons. Agriculture also plays a role in the economy of this region. Dairy cattle production is the main agricultural activity the majority of the milk being processed for cheese production. Permanent grassland represents about 78% of the agricultural area in the northern Alps i.e. about twice the average proportion in the rest of France. The farming system is based upon the complementary use of valley pastures close to the farms and high altitude pastures (1 400-2 400 m) called alpages. As shown in Figure 2 the use of high altitude pastures during summer enables the creation of large forage reserves from the valley pastures for the winter period which is particularly long. In order to benefit from this forage stock when the milk production of the cows is the highest the farmers try to group the calvings during the three or four months after summering.

From the fifties due to a decreasing number of people wanting to summer with their animals high altitudes pastures were used less and less and this led to a reduction in the grazing pressure and in the amount of manure (Verrier and Bresson 1995). This phenomenon had unfavourable ecological consequences: the development of less appetizing grasses and of bushes increased acidity of the soil and a reduction in its richness. The development of bushes had an unfavourable impact on tourism because the landscape became less and less open and from place to place the risk of avalanches increased.

At the same time the population of the two local cattle breeds Abondance and Tarentaise decreased dramaticaly (Figure 3). From the early seventies to the early nineties the reduction in the number of cows was 32% and 58% for the Abondance and Tarentaise breeds respectively which was higher than for the whole French dairy cattle herd (25%). In recent years the population size has decreased at a slower rate (Tarentaise) or has increased slighty (Abondance). In 2000 there were 57 700 Abondance cows and 13 500 Tarentaise cows mainly kept in mountain or high mountain areas.

Joint revival of the use of mountain areas and development of AOC products

Facing these regressive evolutions from the early eighties a new dynamic was developed for mountain agriculture. Firstly the conditions of life and work during summering were improved (Verrier 1995): the construction of tracks for access to high altitude pastures the restoration of chalets grazing management on high altitude Pastures and setting up milking machines and cheese processing equipment. This action involved a collective organisation of farmers and was supported by local and regional public policies. Secondly because the price of the usual dairy products decreased the farmers developed the production of cheeses under AOC which was supported at the national level by the management of the references within the milk quota system (Chatellier and Delattre 2003). From 1980 to 2000 the production of the two main AOC cheeses from the northern Alps namely the Reblochon and Beaufort was increased by 3.4 and 2.2 folds respectively (source: INAO). Such AOC productions which are under the close control of farmers within small cooperative factories led to a substantially higher milk price paid to farmers a 20% to 40% increase in comparison with the milk for non-AOC cheeses in the same region and a 35% to 60% increase in comparison with the average price in France (Ricard 1994; Verrier 1995; Chatellier and Delattre 2003).

Figure 2. Calendar management of herds and grazing periods in the northern Alps.

Figure 3. Evolution of the population size of the Abondance and Tarentaise cattle breeds. Source: Agricultural census 1970 to 2000.

The value of the local breeds in this context

The local Abondance (Figure 4) and Tarentaise (Figure 5) breeds play a central role in this new dynamic in the French northern Alps. These two breeds show some adaptation and functional traits of interest for the mountain farming system and the use of high altitude pastures. Table 1 shows the traits which have been assessed by comparisons with other dairy breeds on the basis of experiments or field observations. Some of the adaptation traits are partly due to the small adult weight of the cows (from 450 to 550 kg). The cows of these breeds reproduce well and regularly which is very valuable because the farming system strongly depends on a calendar of calving (see Figure 1). Dealing with the production of AOC cheeses the average milk production is moderate about 5 000 and 4 000 kg per cow per lactation for the Abondance and Tarentaise breeds respectively (On Farm Milk Recording 2002). This milk has favourable properties for cheese processing due to:

1. higher protein to fat ratio (between 0.85 and 0.90) than specialised dairy breeds;

2. intermediate frequency of the B allele of the k-casein (Grosclaude 1988) this allele being favourable to both the rapidity of milk clotting and the cheese yield; and

3. other good chemical characteristics involved in milk clotting (Macheboeuf et al. 1993).

Table 1. Adaptation and functional traits in the Abondance and Tarentaise cattle breeds assessed by experiments or field data.




Ease of walking and low impact of long walking on dairy production1


+ +

Resistance to heat2

+ +


Grazing activity on high altitude pastures under harsh climatic or topographic conditions3

+ +

+ +

Ability to intake and valorize rough dry forages4

+ +


Fertility and longevity5



Resistance to mastitis (based on somatic cell counts) independently from the milk yield6

+ +


o = moderate
+ = rather high
+ + = high
x = trait not measured on the breed. Sources: 1 D'Hour et al. 1994; 2 Colleau et al. 1979; 3 Anonymous 1972; 4 Guimet 1969. 5 Carrère et al. 1984; 6 Rupp et al. 2000.

For all these reasons at the request of both the farmers and cheesemakers the use of local breeds has been included within the rules to produce the AOC cheeses from the northern Alps. Only Abondance or Tarentaise cows are allowed to produce milk for the Beaufort AOC. For the other AOC cheeses from this region only Abondance Tarentaise and Montbéliarde cows are allowed this latter breed originating from a middle-mountain area and having a milk composition close to that of the alpine breeds. Due to their ability to use high altitude pastures and due to their typical traits the local breeds strongly contribute to the favourable image of the AOC cheeses. Conversely such a link with the production of high quality cheeses is a very good opportunity for the valorization of these breeds and as a consequence is expected to contribute to their preservation or their development.

Discussion and Conclusions

The examples presented in this paper show how connections between the natural constraints and specific features of local breeds can produce value through both the farming system and quality products. Other examples of farming systems involving the adaptative abilities of local breeds and making value from them exist through products with quality signs (e.g. Verrier 1998; Casabianca and Matassino 2003). The efficiency of these systems and their dynamics do not depend only on the traits of the breeds but also on the organisation of farmers and producers. A clear genetic strategy is needed including on-farm performance recording and an emphasis in the selection goal on adaptation and functional traits. In harsh environments such as mountain regions particular attention should be given to adaptation to the local environment. The ability of local breeds to produce in such conditions due to their rusticity and their productivity in relation to the environment should be fully evaluated. This is all the more true in ruminant species for which a large variety of management systems can be observed. The unique adaptation to a specific environment is also well illustrated by the case of the cattle goat and sheep Créole breeds from the French West Indies (Naves et al. 2001; Naves 2003). These populations combine in probably unique genotypes traits inherited from their ancestors and shaped by the environmental and management conditions in which they have been raised. Yet on the basis of molecular information alone the Créole breeds as with other Criolo breeds from Central or Southern America would probably appear as poor contributors to global diversity because they combine different genes from their ancestors which originated from Europe West Africa and India.

Figure 4. Abondance cows on high altitude pasture (photo by Pierre del Porto SOPEXA).

Niche products are appealing because they may combine at a local level dynamic breed conservation and economic profitability. When such a product becomes a success the production tends to grow with a potential risk of a decrease in the specificity and/or the quality of the product (e.g. Arrayet et al. 2003). The AOC system offers a regulatory set up which limits the risk of both standardizing the product and loosing the breeds’ specific abilities. However the AOC system is really effective if the producing and processing rules are strictly defined and applied as examplified by the case of AOC cheeses (Ricard 1994; Verrier 1998). From an animal breeding point of view another point to which attention should be paid is the designation by which the product is protected. In the case of the Bresse AOC the area of production and the area where the breed is kept are strictly the same: in such a situation the fact that both the product and the breed have the same name does not create a problem. On the other hand when the breed area is larger than the area of production a different name should be given to the product. As an example breeders of Maine-Anjou cattle recently developed an AOC product in an area smaller than the area where animals of this breed are kept (in the west of France). As the name Maine-Anjou was also chosen for the product and because the rules for protection via an AOC are very strict the official name of the breed has been changed into Pie Rouge des Prés which is less favourable to the image of the breed and its international recognition.

Yet the market share for niche products remains limited and the number of niches may not be infinite and as a result marketing may become a critical issue in the success of a new project. Furthermore niche products are generally more expensive than standard products and their success will depend on the buying power of consumers. Thus niche products appear to present a very good opportunity to preserve local breeds in a favorable economic background which may be found in developed countries. Yet niche products may not be so easy to develop in developing countries. Furthermore cultural practices are also key factors in the successful development of niche products. Even under favourable economic conditions such as in Europe there are considerable differences between countries as can be illustrated by the cases in the two species and productions considered in this paper. The label or AOC chicken does not exist in some countries which are important for chicken production and consumption such as The Netherlands probably due to different uses. Greece and France are the two countries in the world with the highest cheese consumption with 26.5 and 24.5 kg per inhabitant and per year respectively in 2001 (FAO-Eurostat cited by CNIEL: However the use of this product is definitively different from one country to the other. On the one hand the main part of the cheese produced and eaten in France is maturated cheese and some cheeses are used as basic products whereas AOC and/or cheeses matured over a long period are used as gastronomic products. On the other hand in Greece the major part of the cheese produced and eaten is fresh or only briefly maturated and cheese is generally considered as a basic product which is not favourable to the development of expensive niche products.

Figure 5. Tarentaise cows on high altitude pastures (photo by UPRA Tarentaise).

How to include the economic adaptative and/or special cultural value of local breeds in decision making tools? On the one hand the various approaches to breed diversity provide quantitative information. On the other hand the adaptative economic or cultural values of a given breed are mainly of qualitative nature. How to weigh both kinds of information in order to build a global priority index is not so obvious. One solution would be to separately assess the originality of a given breed from a strictly genetic point of view and determine its value for the use in special environments regarding special quality products etc. Public policies could provide financial incentives together with a check-list of technical criteria in order to facilitate the launching of programmes highlighting the value of local breeds in creating niche products. The check-list could include molecular data together with performance indicators linked to environmental constraints and/or economical objectives. Such programmes would be expected to become self supporting while emerging projects would still be supported.

In conclusion looking at conservation priorities for local breeds only through genetic variability based on markers would be limiting. This information should be complemented by accurate information about the uses and performance of animals in relation to their natural environment and their farming system. Local breeds should be seen as carrying genes that enable them to adapt to specific conditions and produce valuable products. They may have considerable value per se (adaptation traits quality of products etc.) which should be objectively characterised in order to have an accurate appraisal of their value as a genetic resource. Social factors will play a determining role in the launch of preservation programmes breeders’motivation will be necessary to develop specific niche products.

Public policies should play a stimulating role for these breeders and provide them with technical and regulatory supports. Yet the diversity of cultural practices among countries will greatly influence the type of organisations most suited to making value from local breeds. Finally economic factors will determine the success and sustainability of specific systems such as niche production aimed at the preservation of local breeds.

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[2] UMR Génétique et Diversité Animales INRA/INA Paris-Grignon, 16 rue Claude Bernard 75231 Paris cedex 05 France
[3] Centre de Sélection de la Volaille de Bresse Béchanne 01370 St-Etienne-du-Bois France
[4] Unité de Recherches Zootechniques Domaine Duclos Prise d’eau 97170 Petit-Bourg FWI Guadeloupe

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