The Randall Cattle Story
My Involvement With The Breed
Like most city kids, the cows I saw were on TV, in photos, or through car windows. Our house was four blocks from the main campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. There were absolutely no cows in my background, so there is no clear explanation as to how they got into my blood. The first introduction into my system was inheriting a large oil painting with three dairy cows standing in a woodland stream. A peculiar thing for a ten year old girl to own, but looking back, that was the beginning. The next year, in an effort to keep me away from the possible trouble I could find on the streets of the city, Mother went into debt to buy a run-down eight acre "farm" out in the sticks, with a little house and barn, some woods, and a creek. The next spring, we bought an old Angus cow and a broken-down quarter horse. I was in seventh heaven! At thirteen, I emptied my savings account to buy two good registered Angus heifers and began building a small herd.
Life intervened and I took a different path lined with parties, living back in town, sports cars and building a beautiful new house. But in my mid-thirties, I started daydreaming about cows and farming again. I pored over every country magazine, and in 1986 read a tiny blurb describing the plight of an unusual genetically-rare breed of cattle from Vermont. Their farmer, Everett Randall, had died and his widow, who was unable to keep the cattle, was looking for someone to carry on with them. I contacted Robert Gear, who had written the article. He told me the cattle remaining had been purchased by a couple in western Massachusetts, but theirs was not a long-term interest and the cattle were again for sale and their future was uncertain. Robert advised me to read an article he had previously written in The Small Farmer's Journal about Randall Lineback cattle.
After getting a copy of Robert's article, I got my first lesson about Randall cattle, and rare breeds in general, something unknown to me. The job at hand would be to preserve the breed genetics and increase their numbers to insure their survival. The article photos revealed stunningly beautiful animals. Certainly the unfair situation these cattle, and all rare breeds, had been forced into, spoke to my sense of fair play. It was the language in one of the last paragraphs which set me on the never-wavering course I am still on. Robert wrote these compelling words directing me and the cattle to our future: "These animals represent one of America's rarest gene pools. They are a vital piece of living American agricultural history, animals whose like are not and will never again be found in our agricultural landscape…. A comparison can easily be drawn between these animals and the rarest of rare species, the small diversified farmer. Like the Randall cattle, they have been forced by circumstances foisted on rural society by an unrelenting and unsympathetic momentum of social disruption to divorce him from his rightful environment. It has been observed that to remove this species from its environment or to destroy that environment will ensure that species' extinction. The plight of the unspecialized livestock breed is one with the small independent farmer."
I Take The Plunge
The minute those words ran through my mind, I became obsessed with Randall cattle and set in motion what ended up being weeks of negotiating with the owners of the cattle. These people held no regard for the genetic resource they held and, to be honest, I didn't understand it fully then myself. They just wanted a bundle of money for these "rare" cattle. The deal was cut and I sent a retired dairy man to Massachusetts to get the cows. It was all or nothing and I was getting 5 cows, 4 heifers, a herd bull, 2 yearling bulls, a weanling bull, and 2 calves at side (who made the entire trip in the nose of the gooseneck.)
Mine was the classic "not looking before you leap" case. I didn't have the money to buy the cows, I drove an MG, and I lived in a new house on that 8 acre "farm". Clearing the obstacles back to front, I borrowed the money from a good friend and started looking for a farm. Before I got that proper farm, the cows arrived in April of 1987. The truck backed in, the gate opened, and the cattle literally fell off the trailer in deplorable condition. A description of their previous accommodations revealed all being locked in a barn, in manure half way up their sides, and nearly starved. In fact, two cows died in that barn during the negotiations. One cow had broken her horn during the trip, so their lice-covered, pitiful, hairless skin and bones appearance was accented by everyone being covered in blood. My driver calmly said, "You're gonna lose about half of 'em." I can still hear him saying that and I can still see those frail animals stumble around. They were heart-breaking but they were mine.
A New Way Of Life
I started hauling hay, making mistakes, and looking for a farm to rent. With spring grass and hay, the girls (and boys) blossomed. I found a farm to rent until the perfect farm of my own came along. I looked every weekend, driving over most of Tennessee, and the next February made a down payment on 143 acres seventy miles away. The farm was great for the girls with decent pasture, two good ponds, two barns, nice woods, but not much fencing. We moved and started breeding Randalls in earnest. I should make it clear--I was completely ignorant and had only determination and love of these cows going for me toward any chance of success.
Shortly after the girls arrived, Dr. Phil Sponenberg, a geneticist at Virginia Tech and tech advisor for ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) came to see the cattle. Two clear messages came from our meeting: Increase the herd (following a breeding plan he devised) and "don't change them". Twice in later years, Phil Sponenberg came to my farm and conducted blood typing on the herd. The results showed Channel Island markers along with others from ancient and modern breeds. Dr. Sponenberg really impressed upon me and educated me about the true importance of the Randalls' rare genetics. Genetics was his job as PhD at Virginia Tech, but his love was rare breed genetics.
The first year that all nine of the girls calved, eight bulls and one heifer hit the ground. So much for increasing the herd! But the cows were healthy and teaching me lessons in life on a daily basis. They were so able, smart, and tough, but wonderful mothers and always---gorgeous! I was obsessed with them and astonished by them. They weren't anything like the cows I read about in all the ag magazines and newspapers. They had none of the reported diseases, problems, or illnesses. They could eat weeds and honeysuckle and raise a nice calf on it. Nothing special was needed for them, and if I forgot salt or minerals, they just licked the dirt next to the telephone poles. They knew how to be cows so well it was baffling and they didn't want my interference. Eventually, I learned these old world characteristics were common in many rare and discarded breeds of livestock. They were much more valuable to small farmers than the cookie-cutter, commercially-developed modern breeds. All of this just made me admire and adore the Randalls more every year.
The Work Of Genetic Conservation
We followed the steady plan for the first eight years. Dr. Sponenberg had charted the herd using the founder animals with each animal introduced being added to the chart carrying a percentage of each founder. He would suggest two or three bulls to use each year and which cows to use them on. I would choose the bull, or bulls, to actually use, depending on their conformation, disposition, and mother's characteristics. Changing bulls each year gradually watered down the very tight genetics with which the herd came to me.
So, each new lesson from the girls took me around another learning curve. More heifer calves were born each year and the herd was growing. I made too many mistakes, but the Randalls seemed to go along despite me. My biggest mistake was taking these cattle to the hot, humid southeast. They were miserable six months of the year and I was too ignorant to understand I had taken them out of their natural environment just to suit me - you know - I'm a human and must bend all things to my will. But they brought me to a still hazy understanding of natural existence, and within a couple of years of turning my life upside down to bring the Randalls to Tennessee, I vowed to return them to their native New England. It took me longer to get that done.
Dr. Sponenberg and I had agreed that I would not sell any females until the herd numbers were safe enough to spare animals and genetics. In 1994, Dianne and Phil Lang contacted me and came from Connecticut to Tennessee to visit the girls. The Langs shortly thereafter took home the first two heifers I sold and have been dedicated breeders and pivotal leaders in the Registry. They hand milk their girls in an organic environment, keeping detailed records and have sold some 23 animals to other people of a like mind regarding these cattle. So over the next years, with a herd of some thirty girls intact, I sold heifers and bulls to folks in Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Rhode Island, North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Ontario. Twelve herds were started from the girls in Tennessee, ranging in size from one heifer to five and some bulls. I felt like we had made an excellent stab at establishing larger herd numbers and thinning the genetics so the cows were not as closely bred as when they arrived in Tennessee.
Some Cow Tales
I won't recount any of the stories with sad or negative endings, but a couple of positive ones are worth the time to tell. The birth of Savannah was memorable: six weeks premature, according to my vet, and her first weeks of life were spent zipped inside my LL Bean down vest. It fit her perfectly; front legs through the arm holes, zipper down her belly, little stand-up collar. She had no real hair - just a pelt. She couldn't stand the first two days so I kept her in the kitchen at night, tubed her with milk, and took her out to her mother's feet each morning - in her vest. She finally stood, then nursed, and then moved to the barn and corral and on to victory.
One of the original cows, Terrible, an imposing beast with this enormous lyre-shaped set of horns, developed a knot on her neck. The thing grew and my local vet suggested that the University of Tennessee Vet School should do an ultrasound, etc. We did all that and discovered a nonmalignant tumor, by then the size of a volley ball, encasing her trachea and being inoperable. She wasn't sick and had two calves in the years following the doctor's appointment, but every day for over two years I flushed the cavern through developed drainage holes with a huge syringe or a garden hose, depending on the weather. She died of what appeared to be natural causes - just didn't wake up one morning - great cow.
Karey, one of the original nine girls, blew out her rear leg, likely during breeding. After more x-rays and bills at the UT Vet School, she lived her last year or so in the barn or corral lot becoming close friends with my cat Rosemont. I cleaned her rear feet every day or so and she stood once a day to drink. She had her calf and I was getting depressed thinking about her future and whether it was right to keep her going. I came home from work one day to find her in the field with the cows and a bull. She had lain around for seven or eight months and let me feed her, but when it came to romance, she got up, vaulted a chain link fence, and got bred again. She stayed in the field until the second calf was born, that joint firing like a gun with every step she took. She died peacefully months later.
The Long Road North
As I learned the many abilities and characteristics, which were lacking in most commercial cattle breeds on which the world depended, possessed by the Randall cattle, and many rare breeds of livestock, I became more driven to get the girls with me back in the milking parlor. I had long believed that the only way to guarantee Randalls a place in the farming world was to get them jobs, other than as yard ornaments. One job could certainly be producing nice bull calves for pink or rose veal, but the Randall cows were primarily dairy cows and needed a job being milked. The Langs, in Connecticut, were milking their girls and were pleased. The late 1990's movement to clean food, humane treatment of livestock, and resurgence of small farms was tailor made for the Randalls. So, all this meant we had to move to New England AND milk the girls.
I "retired" at 49 from an excellent job with the federal government to be a cattle baroness, make no money and be happy. I sold the wonderful farm we had been living on, traveled to New York state to look at farms to buy (I could not afford New England proper) and got ready for changes - more changes. I bought a smaller farm further north in Tennessee, but continued looking at New York for a farm. In 2002, a situation for employment arose in Virginia. The cows and I stayed there two years before my opportunity came to head for New England. Virginia had been a very negative experience, but Mother was right: what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. In the spring of 2004, I accepted a job as farm manager for a large farm in western Connecticut. The cows and I were welcome and the farm owner was very interested in developing a small dairy. One hundred nine bovines, four dogs and I arrived with bells on in Connecticut, to a farm not unlike the Randall farm in Vermont, on July 10, 2004. Good things were worth working and waiting for. Orchard grass, stone walls, birch trees, cooler summers (and winters) - they were back where they belonged and I was lucky enough to be with them.
The Randalls Meet the World
The girls and I have improved fourteen farms in ten states and Canada, and two zoos with the presence of forty-nine Randall cows and bulls since 1987. Randall owners in Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Missouri and Pennsylvania are milking their girls. Eight folks have trained and/or are working ten pair of oxen. As 2005 gets going, 200 Randalls are burning hay this winter on 25 farms. I have spent most waking hours working to preserve the Randalls and help secure their future, most of any money I have made over the last 18 years and every ounce of energy I've had, and it's been the most enjoyable and worthwhile thing I've done in 55 years.
Anyone interested in sharing their farm and life with these wonderful cattle will be better for knowing them. We have not allowed that piece of agricultural history to be lost. The Randall cattle are alive and well, their future is bright and their mark on history continues to be made.
"Karey", "Little Karey"
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My Life Before
Cynthia's Randall Cattle Pages
Cynthia Creech's Adventures in Conserving the Rare and Beautiful Randall (Lineback) Cattle Breed