Friday, June 26, 2009

Traditional Goose Breeds

Many varieties of geese are waning and need attention. The Mother Goose of the past, inspired by the common sight of flocks of geese, has become a rarity. The rich influence of the goose in agricultural history and myth is now relegated to commercial production of a single breed, Embdens. Geese now represent less than one percent of modern poultry production.

Geese were once the traditional Christmas meal and competitive with turkeys for other festive occasions. But today, among concerns about high fat diets and the decline of the traditional family farm, geese are the least used of our traditional poultry. Being less well-adapted to factory production than chickens or turkeys, commercial production has nearly ceased. Most recognized breeds of geese, such as American Buff, African, China, Embden, Roman, Sebastopol and Toulouse, have remained relatively popular as show birds and have retained safe population levels. However, some that were historically among the most important types in traditional American agriculture are in serious decline and need immediate help. I'll devote separate posts to each breed in future.

The Gray Goose is a large domestic variation of the wild Western Graylag, right, the goose that migrates through Iceland, Northern and Central Europe. The domestic Gray Goose was the most populous farm and commercial goose in America until the 1960s. Agricultural records document it as the most popular goose in the U.S. and in Canada. Confusion arose from commercial operations that gave the Gray Goose the misleading name, Commercial Toulouse. Both Gray and Toulouse Geese are gray in color, but otherwise very different breeds.

American Gray Geese developed largely from the English Gray Goose, the traditional bird of holiday celebrations. They are slimmer and lighter in body than the true Toulouse, without the fatty mid-body keel. They are easier to finish, not as fatty and mature earlier than Toulouse Geese.

As the American diet has targeted fat as undesirable, goose has become less popular on the table. Goose can be prepared to reduce fat in the meat, and the fat reserved for other culinary uses. The American housewife of the past valued goose fat as an ingredient in other cooking throughout the year.

Consumer demand for Gray Geese, now often called ‘Commercial Toulouse,’ encouraged hatcheries to maintain the breed. That has kept Gray Goose numbers sufficient to protect the breed from disappearing. However, the strains bred in hatcheries do not always preserve traditional qualities.

Gray Geese have historically been noted for egg production. Some modern hatchery strains have shown an increase in egg production.

Gray Geese have traditionally been good parents, brooding and raising their own goslings. It was not unknown for them to raise two batches of goslings in a year. Some hatchery Gray Geese are no longer good brooders or parents. SPPA is looking for established flocks with a history of reproducing naturally.
Toulouse Geese, shown in this illustration from Lewis Wright's Illustrated Book of Poultry, 1890, are a French breed originally developed for production of the large livers used in making foie gras. It is low slung and heavy bodied, with a dewlap under the chin and a fatty keel below its midsection hanging nearly to the ground. In silhouette, its heavy body appears more horizontal and lower than the Gray Goose’s. Because of this lower distribution of its body, its legs appear short.

The Toulouse was originally an all gray breed but now a buff variety is recognized and some breeders maintain white flocks.

Ganders often weigh as much as 30 lbs. Toulouse as a breed are larger than Gray Geese.

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