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Steward of species

A Rocheport farmer tends to a herd of heritage breeds in danger of extinction
Monday, May 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:25 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Bill Heffernan pats his American cream draft horses, which are extremely rare and weigh almost a ton each. There are only about 300 cream drafts in the world, and Heffernan keeps three other rare species of animals on his farm.

Everything on Bill Heffernan’s farm is old: the wooden barns, the rusty wagons; even the animals are ancient breeds.

Heffernan, who is now retired, continues to raise heritage breeds, or rare species of livestock that are in danger of extinction. The four ancient species that live on his 150-acre farm near Rocheport are St. Croix hair sheep, American cream draft horses, red poll cattle and Caspian horses.

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A farmer all his life, Heffernan has a Dr. Doolittle- or Pied Piper-like quality. As he walks along the pastures, his animals trot up to greet him.

“Why hello there!” he says as he extends his hand to four enormous ivory-colored horses that are trotting happily toward him.

“They just like to be patted,” says Heffernan, who is soon dwarfed by the horses’ muscular bodies. Each of them weighs just short of a ton. “I pet them so they get used to being around people.”

These American cream draft horses represent four of about 300 in the world. Heffernan hopes to break them in so they can eventually pull the antique wagon, or “prairie schooner,” that is sitting in his barn.

Heffernan’s dog, Johan, follows him as he makes his rounds. He feeds the St. Croix hair sheep, which shed their own wool by rubbing up along fences. After that, he visits the Caspian horses in the next pen.

“This is the kind of horse that used to pull Persian chariots,” Heffernan says. The Caspians stand just about as tall as Heffernan himself. Once thought to be extinct, the Caspians were rediscovered in the last century.

Though the animals and buildings on his farm are historical, Heffernan has added a few modern conveniences. He uses a bright-red golf cart to round up his red poll bulls.

“I used to play the cowboy,” Heffernan says. “Now that I’m retired, though, I just do what’s easiest.”

Within minutes, the hornless bulls come up to the cart and rub their moist and sticky noses on the windshield. “Come on, let’s go,” he says to the animals, which follow the cart back to the pens.


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