Heifer's History: 75 years of empowerment

Explore our decades of dedication to ending hunger and poverty

passing out meager rations of powdered milk during the Spanish Civil War, Indiana farmer Dan West was distraught when the milk ran out with children still waiting in line. He realized that they needed "not a cup, but a cow."

Heifer International was born from that simple idea of empowerment, and for 75 years the organization has worked tirelessly to give families a hand up, rather than just a handout.

Explore the history of Heifer International and see how donors like you have helped bring over 34 million families out of poverty.

Chapter One
Family of people surrounding a donated heifer.

1940s: Aftermath of World War II

When the fighting stopped, we started feeding

While passing out meager rations of powdered milk during the Spanish Civil War, Indiana farmer Dan West was distraught when the supply of milk ran out with children still waiting in line. He realized that they needed “not a cup, but a cow.” Families did not need short-term relief, but a continual source of food and income. Heifer International was born from that simple idea. When they stopped fighting, we started feeding. In 1944, the first cows sent abroad were donated by West’s neighbors and distributed in Puerto Rico.

But there were other wars to be won, as well. As World War II came to a haunting end, huge portions of Europe and Asia were reduced to ruins, with populations diminished, farmland demolished and hunger running rampant. Heifer became active in revitalizing these war-torn countries, including refugee resettlement centers. Groups of farmers, who dubbed themselves the Seagoing Cowboys, began escorting livestock overseas, making about 360 trips on 73 different ships.

Some animals were also distributed to U.S. farmers, who too were suffering from the after-effects of the war. Because not all recipients were experienced farmers, we added a training component before sending animals.

1940 WWII
Man and child with young heifer.
Faith, one of the first donated heifers in Europe, with her donor, Virgil Mock, and Claire Stine, the teenage boy who raised her.

Aid and peacemaking missions in war-ravaged Europe

Germany was one of the many war-torn countries where Heifer worked after World War II. For one displaced family, Penelope the cow made all the difference.

Donated heifers surrounded by receiving family.

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The Church of the Brethren in Indiana founds "Heifers for Relief."
The first shipment of 18 heifers is sent to Puerto Rico.
The Seagoing Cowboys take the first shipment of animals to Europe.
713 dairy cows are shipped to China.
Thousands of dairy goats set sail to Japan.
Ecuador receives heifers, sheep and goats, Heifer's first such shipment.
Chapter Two
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1950s: Ending Poverty and Hunger

Poverty and hunger rampant in war-torn countries and underdeveloped areas of the world

As countries affected by the war began to heal, Heifer gradually began moving into impoverished and developing areas around the world. In each country, we had to organize committees and get permission to import livestock. Most countries were uneasy about letting Americans in, so we had to communicate with the government about what we were trying to do.​

All recipient families promised to pass on the first healthy female offspring to another family, transforming recipients into donors. This concept, called Passing on the Gift®, continues to be one of the hallmarks of our organization today. This unique approach creates a ripple effect that transforms lives and communities, at minimum doubling the impact of the original gift.

We quickly realized that while a cow can make a world of difference for a struggling farming family, the environments were not always conducive to the needs of a cow. We began introducing a wider variety of animals better suited for the local environments to increase the benefit to the family. This meant straying away from our namesake and introducing animals such as goats, chickens and bees.

Man sadly looking at eggs in hand
Women holding and kissing a chick
Heifer chicks from the first shipment to Egypt, and Miss Pat Donat, Royal Dutch Airlines flight attendant.

Sending relief after the Korean War

By the end of 1954, there were more than 400 registered orphanages in South Korea, and they grew by about 1,000 children a week. After the war, our work in South Korea focused on the needs of orphanages. Watch how a gift from Heifer allowed this orphanage to provide for all the children who had found refuge there.

Donated heifers surrounded by receiving family.

Review Of

Under the guidance of Executive Director Thurl Metzger animal shipments change in focus from war-ravaged nations to underdeveloped areas of the world.
Heifer begins placement of more than 216,000 hatching eggs in Korea.
President Eisenhower donates one of his prize bulls for the American Farm School in Greece.
Cross-breeding in India quadruples milk productions for millions of cows.
Half of the chickens in Korea are descended from Heifer hatching eggs supplied after the Korean War.
Heifers are sent to Russia to express U.S. friendship during the Cold War.
The 10,000th heifer is shipped to Germany.
Chapter Three
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1960s: Civil Rights Movement

Empowerment for neighbors at home

Heifer soon transitioned from shipping animals internationally to purchasing and redistributing local or regional livestock. This eliminated the long, laborious journey overseas.

Although much of our work overseas was blossoming, political tensions ran high at home with the civil rights movement. Families struggled to put food on the table, reinforcing the need to bolster our programs in the United States.

In the mid-1960s, we pioneered our animal gift catalog, which helped illustrate our work to donors in a tangible way by showing them the animals and their benefits. This initial catalog helped shape the catalog donors receive today.

Family with sheep.
Man and child with young heifer.
Volunteers try to convince a Heifer-donated sheep to leave the airplane in Cochabamba, Bolivia on April 8, 1964. This delivery was part of a memorial shipment for President John F. Kennedy.

Leading the charge for desegregation

A shipment of 15 heifers was distributed to black families in Prentiss, Mississippi. When the second shipment arrived, the Institute asked for help distributing the animals to white farmers. Despite rampant racial inequality in the community, the African-American families felt called to support those in need.

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Review Of

Heifer works with the Prentiss Institute, an African-American junior college in Prentiss, Mississippi. In a partnership lasting 30 years, families are empowered to share resources and use their gifts for desegregation in their community.
First alternative gift catalog idea was conceived and distributed to donors. Heifer's first catalog was only four pages long and gave donors the options of contributing to projects in Greece, Colombia, Haiti or Africa, in the form of animals and monetary donations.
In Ecuador and Bolivia, Heifer enters into first contracts with Peace Corps.
Heifer's 1 millionth chick is sent to Egypt.
Chapter Four
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1970s: Deeper Roots

Transforming communities with local focus and women's empowerment

Despite the differences in our projects around the world, one common component to our success soon became apparent: women. When women have the power to make decisions and earn income, change happens in families and communities. We concentrated on increasing opportunities for women by providing them the resources necessary to be successful, including trainings on gender equality and initiatives aimed at helping send girls to school.

We also realized that environmental factors play a large role in the success of projects. We began to emphasize consideration of local situations and needs, making projects more catered to their individual environments.

We consolidated our U.S. distribution network by buying several large farms to serve as livestock centers for breeding, raising and holding animals. When a bankrupt investment firm couldn’t pay for 2,400 registered Black Angus cattle, another cattle management firm, Premier Corporation, paid the money due on the cattle and then paid Heifer to take the cattle. At this time, we were shipping cattle to post-war and developing nations. We didn't have a place to move that many cattle at once, so we bought a 1,200-acre ranch in Perryville. Since we purchased the Ranch in Arkansas, we moved our offices to Little Rock.

Dan West w/ animals on cargo ship.
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Dan West's vision

Dan West lived his philosophy of peace, justice and simple living while striving for equality for all. He passed away in 1971, leaving behind a legacy of servitude and empowerment.

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Review Of

Heifer's headquarters moves from St. Louis, Missouri to Little Rock, Arkansas.
Parcels of land were donated and purchased to become Heifer Ranch, in Perryville, Arkansas.
Nonprofit changes name to Heifer Project International.
The Korean Ministry of Agriculture estimates that half the chickens in Korea are descended from Heifer hatching eggs supplied after the Korean War.
Chapter Five
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1980s: Caring for the Earth

Protecting the land for future generations

Caring for the Earth has always been a central aspect to Heifer projects, but we began to approach this fundamental more intentionally. We introduced our global projects to agroecology, a method of sustainable farming that centers on food production while protecting the environmental resources. Through this, participants began using methods such as terracing for slash and burn and with zero-grazing pens. Participants found healthy, environmentally friendly ways to take care of their land and protect it for future generations.​

Other projects began focusing on new animal husbandry techniques, or ways to breed and care for their animals. We emphasized involving local people, resources and animals, which boosted economies and markets at a community level. As we saw the benefits of forging strong partnerships with like-minded individuals and groups, we began branching out in outside partnerships for funding.

Two Alpacas.
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The caption on this photo from Heifer's archives reads: "The Brahman bull is the most gentle and friendly of animals if you like him and learn how he should be handled."

Learning to thrive with hardy livestock

In Ecuador, high cattle mortality rate was one of the most pressing agricultural problems. Heifer’s early work in the country helped by crossbreeding and improving livestock for bull production. Meet one family to who turned to Heifer for livestock after their crops failed in the harsh climate.

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A cross-breeding program in the Chinese city of Ya’an increases local goat milk production by up to 80 percent.
China program is re-established with importation of rabbits and goats.
President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Volunteerism presents Heifer with the Volunteer Action Award.
Chapter Six
Sheep lined up for shearing

1990s: Self-Development

Refining the fundamentals

We began to articulate our 12 Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development, or guiding principles. The Cornerstones reflect the essential values we instill within our projects, including accountability, full participation, and sharing and caring. Many projects incorporate the Cornerstones into training for members, as these 12 principles serve as the foundation that guides families and communities into self-reliance.

We began to receive national and international recognition for our efforts to end hunger and poverty. We wanted project participants to own this success and be empowered within their families and communities.

We also highlighted supporting the self-development of local organizations in a holistic manner while emphasizing intensive evaluation training for projects.

Sheep shears.
Older women looking off into the distance.
Mary Ann Morris, 84, keeps a watchful eye on her sheep in the Seba Dalkai community. With a ram exchange program, Heifer and Navajo Nation partners work to improve the quality of commercial wool and lambs produced by Navajo sheep farmers, which is vital to their economic future and spiritual well-being.

Reviving tradition

During the 1990s, more than half of the Navajo Nation lived below the federal poverty line. Young people were leaving the reservation, resulting in a decreased population and workforce and increased economic instability. Particularly troubling was the deterioration of the sheep industry, which had been a vital means of income. Heifer stepped in to help Navajo sheep farmers improve their commercial wool quality and diversify their herds.

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Heifer holds Women in Livestock Development Conference.
President Bush gives Heifer the Presidential End Hunger Award.
Heifer International Foundation is established.
Half of the chickens in Korea are descended from Heifer hatching eggs supplied after the Korean War.
Chapter Seven
Ugandan boy smiling

2000s: Expansion

To the millennial and beyond

During this time, we hit the milestone of serving 50 million people around the world. While we recognized the significance of this, we knew there was still much work to be accomplished. We began to expand our efforts to reach more people outside of farming communities. We added offices and grant distribution for resource development, and we provided training in governance and in supporting volunteers in the country programs.

We began to receive national and international recognition for our efforts to end hunger and poverty. We wanted project participants to own this success and be empowered within their families and communities.

We also highlighted supporting the self-development of local organizations in a holistic manner while emphasizing intensive evaluation training for projects.

Arm holding a plant.
heifer history 2000s featured image
Biogas from animal manure has transformed this kitchen in rural Western Uganda: Debra's kitchen in 2009 was an unhealthy smoke-filled room. In 2014, her new kitchen, powered by biogas is complete with a burner for cooking and an overhead lamp.

Expanding and Education

As the AIDS epidemic ravaged across Uganda, thousands of children were left orphaned and alone. One grandmother found herself as the sole caretaker of her 15 grandchildren. See how Heifer helped ensure she could provide for them all.

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Review Of

Heifer's projects have served 50 million people around the world.
Heifer celebrates passing on the 3 millionth animal at a Passing on the Gift® ceremony in China.
Heifer International receives the world's largest humanitarian award from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
Heifer's headquarters opens in a new location in Downtown Little Rock. The building receives Platinum LEED certification for Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design, emphasizing Heifer's pillars of taking care of the earth.
The East Africa Dairy Development project is launched, bringing innovation to the dairy industry to boost milk yields.
Chapter Eight
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2010s: Achieving Living Incomes

A New Breed of Success

Though millions of families around the world had pulled themselves to self-reliance, the number of people still living in poverty was staggering. We decided that what we were doing was working, but we needed to do it quicker. We transitioned to larger-scale projects serving more than 1,000 families. The projects emphasized access to capital and connecting small-scale farmers to formal markets where they could sell their products for fair prices. We focused our work to ensure value chains that work for the poor are in place in each country.

Ultimately, our goal became helping families reach a living income, which is the income needed to allow all members of a household afford a dignified standard of living. Only when families reach a living income can they lead truly resilient lives out of poverty.

To strengthen our impact, we aligned our goals with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly zero hunger, zero poverty and gender equality. We know when we work with like-minded groups toward the same goal, we can achieve even more.

Cow benhind a fence.
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A Second Chance

After losing their home in a fire and having to sleep in a pig sty, see how one family has rebuilt their lives and their livelihoods.

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Jo Luck, as Heifer President, named co-laureate of the World Food Prize.
Heifer names Pierre Ferrari Chief Executive Officer.
Heifer formally transitions to larger-scale projects that serve more than 1,000 families.
Heifer receives Kiwanis International World Service Medal.
Emmy Award-winning actress Uzo Aduba named as Heifer’s first-ever celebrity ambassador to Africa.
Heifer celebrates 75th anniversary.

Families Uplifted Out of Poverty
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