Once Near Extinction, Vermont's Heritage Cattle Come Home

Nov 5, 2015

Vermont is known for its iconic dairy cows, which regularly dot its lush green hillsides in summer. But in a pasture in Reading, the cattle look a bit different. 

They’re smaller with a more oxen-like stature, and their beefy heads sport short curved horns.

“When you look at these cattle, it reminds you of the old 1700s paintings, they have a primitive type that pre-dates when we selected divergently for beef or dairy,” says Joe Emenheiser, a livestock specialist with the University of Vermont Extension who specializes in animal genetics.

“They’re beefier than our average modern dairy cow and have more dairy character than most of our beef breeds," he says.

That’s because back in the early days of pioneering New England the Randall cattle were bred to be an all-purpose meat, dairy and draft animal that could fend for itself in Vermont’s hilly pastures. Nowadays cattle are bred for efficiency, using modern techniques: The goal is milk cows for prolific milk production and beef cattle that bulk up quickly. 

Randall cattle are Vermont’s only known heritage breed, bred more than a hundred years ago to survive the state’s tough winters. The cattle come from a similar genetic background as other cattle in the United States, but they were bred in isolation for more than a century.

“Samuel and Everett Randall spent most of their long lives unknowingly creating and tending the herd of cattle which was destined to be the last genetic link with the American landrace herds of previous centuries in New England,” says the Randall Lineback Breed Association.

A brush with extinction

The Randall cattle forage for weeds, berries and eat whatever they can find. Unlike modern cattle that are inseminated to keep breed lines pure, Randall cattle reproduce on their own, and can birth and raise their calves without any assistance. They even run bears and coyotes out of the fields if the predators are threatening the herd.

Farm manager Eric Johnson says the Randall cattle are far wilder than the dairy cows he's used to working with.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Yet for all their fierce survival instinct, the cows nearly died out in the 1980s. The heritage breed lived for 100 years on the Randall family farm in Sunderland. But when Everett Randall died in 1986, the animals no longer had a home.

An agriculture reporter for The Small Farmer’s Journal wrote up a short article about the plight of the Randall Cattle. The tiny blurb caught the attention of Cynthia Creech, who lived all the way down in Tennessee at the time.  

“[It] included photographs, and when I saw them, I just thought they were beautiful,” says Creech.

Creech says the article described the breed’s rapid decline as “losing part of American agriculture if we allowed these animals to become extinct.”

“And it just spoke to me and I thought, ‘Well, we just can’t let that happen,'” says Creech.  

So Creech contacted the owners who had bought the animals from the Randall farm, cut a deal with them and sent a driver to bring back the herd to Tennessee.

Creech says when the only remaining 15 animals arrived in Tennessee there were in terrible condition: They were skinny and covered in lice. And because they had been locked in a barn for months, they had manure burn, which left them with no hair from the midline down.  

Creech knew nothing about these cattle, but she began caring for them, and she says the animals bounced back:

“They just knew how to do what a cow needed to do without literally any interference from me, except of course they had to be fed hay in the winter.”

Creech says the cattle are so tough and well-suited for a harsh climate, she doesn’t even vaccinate or de-worm the herd.  

Coming home to New England

As she got to know the animals, Creech realized they really were uncomfortable in the repressive humidity and heat of Tennessee, so she bought land in upstate New York and moved her life there.

“I’d taken on these animals, if they were let go, this was the end of them,” she says, explaining why she was so willing to uproot her life for these cattle.

Then, about six years ago, the herd had grown fairly large, and Creech reached out to the Newhall farm to see if they’d be interested in a few animals.

And so the cows came back to Vermont.

Ted and Linda Fondulas run the Newhall Farm. Fondulas says they have a strict agreement with Creech not to sell the animals or breed them with other cows.

“We’re in preservation mode, which is to keep the species going,” says Ted Fondulas, a longtime chef and owner at the former Hemingway’s Restaurant in Killington.

The Newhall Farm and Cynthia Creech are both working with animal geneticist Phillip Sponenberg at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to test the genetics of the Randall cattle, and to breed a sustainable herd that can thrive in the future.  

“The goal is to trace these family trees back — and there’s three or four very important families in the Randalls — and to make sure that we’re using the right bulls, to breed back and diversify the gene pool that’s here so it’s not an inbred herd,” says farm manager Eric Johnson.  

The best way to keep the Randalls alive? Give the cattle a job.

The farm is also working on developing a meat program to find a good use for the animals. Fondulas says that because the cows were bred for three purposes: as dairy, meat and draft animal. They aren’t particularly efficient for any one marketable product.

Randall cattle were first bred more than a century ago when Vermont settlers needed an all-purpose cow for dairy, meat and use as a draft animal.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

But the Randall cattle are a good fit for veal, in part because they’re smaller and it takes years for them to bulk up. The Newhall farm is working building a specialized niche market. Unlike some veal where the animal is force fed rich food indoors, these cows are grass fed and live on pasture.

“What we’re doing is trying to work with a few restaurants and hotels and educate the chef and the staff to realize that this is what it is,” says Fondulas. “Because it’s hard to go to a table and tell them there’s veal on the menu, because the first thing they do is cringe.”

So far, the farm has only harvested at one or two animals a year and isn’t making a profit from the herd.  

Preserving an animal for the sake of heritage?

Animal geneticist Joe Emenheiser says if the sole goal were to preserve the Randall’s unique genetics that could be done by simply freezing the DNA in nitrogen.

But “it’s important to look at it as more than genetics preservation alone, but it’s a way of preserving a lifestyle, too,” says Emenheiser.

Emenheiser says for what the Randalls are doing – thriving in Vermont’s hilly landscape with little human attention – the breed is as or more efficient than modern breeds.

“You couldn’t put a Holstein cow with a calf out in this environment and ask it to raise a veal calf that would, number one, survive, let alone produce the same product," he says.

“Really in the end, how you preserve the breed is to give it a job,” says Fondulas. “And we’re just on the cusp of doing that.” 

And so far, back in their homeland in Vermont, the Randall cattle are doing their job quite well.