By Sue Weaver
Have you ever gazed upon a Randall Lineback cow? Probably not. The Randall Lineback is America’s most critically endangered bovine breed.
|© Chapel Hill Randall Linebacks/
Ron & Diane Salmon
Yet heritage Randall Linebacks—also known as Randall Cattle, Randall Blues and Randall Lineback Blues—have a lot to offer today’s hobby farmer, including the opportunity to help preserve one of America’s last surviving landrace cattle breeds.
"Landrace" refers to a race of plant or animal developed in a specific locale and ideally suited for the environment where it lives.
To fine-tune the definition, landrace livestock breeds are those that adapted to regional environments and to the demands of their work requirements with minimal human intervention, or that developed at the hands of humans using traditional, rather than modern, breeding techniques.
Most landrace horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and goats are multi-purpose heritage breeds, and many are now extinct or endangered.
Individual animals within a landrace breed are similar enough in phenotype (how they look) to be recognizable as members of a bona fide breed, yet they show considerable variation in type. This is because as landrace breeds evolved, function was more important than form. Consider the Border Collie, a landrace breed of working dogs developed in Scotland to herd sheep. Purebred Border Collies vary in size, type and coat length because they’ve been selected for practical herding ability, not to meet a set of show-ring criteria.
© Chapel Hill Randall Linebacks/
Ron & Diane Salmon
America has her share of landrace livestock breeds, such as Hog Island and Navajo-Churro sheep; Rocky Mountain and Spanish Colonial horses; Mulefoot hogs; and Tennessee Fainting Goats. But of the scores of landrace cattle breeds developed during her early history, only a few remain: Pineywoods and Florida Cracker cattle descended from colonial Spanish stock, and New England’s hardy Randall Lineback.
In the Beginning
During the early- to mid-1600s, the ancestors of today’s Randall Linebacks arrived on our Eastern coast aboard sailing ships from points throughout Europe.
However, shipping cattle by sea was costly (and risky), so as imported cattle interbred and multiplied in sufficient numbers to supply colonists with house cows, meat and oxen, importations largely ceased until the mid-19th century.
During the interim, landrace populations developed everywhere cattle were kept.
Meanwhile, specialized, purebred beef and dairy cattle were being developed in Great Britain and Europe.
© Chapel Hill Randall Linebacks/
Ron & Diane Salmon
The golden age of North American landrace cattle lasted until the mid-1800s, when purebred cattle were imported in sizeable numbers.
By the turn of the 20th century, American registries extolled the virtues of beefy Shorthorns, Herefords and Angus, and of specialized dairy breeds such as Ayrshires, Jerseys, Guernseys and Holsteins.
Farmers responded by switching to the new wundercows or upgrading their landrace herds with registered bulls. Gradually, specialized beef and dairy breeds usurped New England’s landrace cattle—the Creampots, the Columbias and Canadienne cattle from nearby Quebec—but through the efforts of one family, a single landrace breed survived.
In 1912, Samuel Randall, his wife May and his 7-year-old son, Everett, took up residence on a farm near Sunderland, Vt. For the next three-quarters of a century, the family operated a farm where they worked their fields, sugared, logged with draft horses and operated a 22-stanchion dairy.
Where Samuel Randall obtained his original cattle isn’t clear, but we do know the Randalls, father and son, chose not to “improve” them with newfangled beef or dairy bulls. The Randalls maintained a closed herd of tried-and-true, multipurpose landrace cattle they developed on their Sunderland farm. “Our Linebacks” the Randalls called them. They were the prototypes of today’s Randall Lineback cattle.
As continued out-crossing laid waste to other landrace cattle breeds, Samuel and Everett Randall continued breeding their cattle in genetic isolation. Their Linebacks were medium-size, multi-purpose cattle—“milky” enough to give two gallons of high-butterfat milk per day on a grass-based diet and beefy enough to provide good eating.
They were docile cattle, intelligent and easy to work with when handled on a daily basis. Cows gave birth to calves without assistance and illness was rare.
According to George Randall, Everett's son and Randall Lineback Breed Association Board member, the elder Randalls selected for Lineback color as much as anything else.
Then, as now, the Randalls' Linebacks were marked with brockled (roan-like) patches of color on a white background. The amount of brockling varied; colors included black, blue or occasionally red. Color occurred on the Linebacks' sides, muzzles, ears, eye rings and sometimes their feet.
When Everett Randall died in 1985, the herd he and his father created was comprised of the last surviving landrace cattle in New England. And the herd was imperiled.
Everett’s wife was unable to care for the animals, so part of the cattle went to slaughter. A portion went to other herds, including a small group to a couple in western Massachusetts who planned to help conserve them. When they lost interest, they put the remaining animals up for sale. At that point the Randall Lineback’s future was bleak.
Cynthia Saves the Randalls
Then fortune smiled upon the breed. Cynthia Creech, now President of the Randall Cattle Registry and Breed Association and then of Artemis Farm in Jefferson City, Tenn., purchased those last nine cows and six bulls.
With the help of Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, who developed a breeding protocol for her cattle, Creech threw her heart and soul into conserving the remnants of the Randalls' decimated herd, which she dubbed Randall cattle.
Randall Cattle vs. Randall Linebacks
Members of the Randall Cattle Registry and Breed Association refer to their animals as Randall cattle or Randalls.
According to the Randall Cattle FAQ page at their Web site (www.randallcattleregistry.org/): "Since the rescue of the Randalls from the Randall farm in 1985, and the re-rescue by Cynthia Creech in 1987, several names have been applied to the cattle, 'Randall Lineback', 'Randall Blue', 'Randall Blue Lineback', and 'Randall'. In the early days there was no Randall 'authority', just Cynthia, who owned most of the animals, and ALBC represented by Phil Sponenberg who was supplying breeding advice for her fledgling herd. Several names were tried out during that period but none was applied to the breed by any sort of organized process involving the interested parties.
"In the mid 1990’s, when for several years the only Randall breeders were Cynthia Creech and Phil and Dianne Lang, serious talk began about the breed name. Around 1997 the consensus was that the breed would be called 'Randall', and this was what they were called in a 1999 article in the Small Farmer's Journal called "Randall Cattle."
This was further codified in the writing of bylaws for a breed Registry in 2000, and its subsequent incorporation in early 2001.
"It was apparent very early on that the use of the words 'Blue' or 'Lineback' in the breed name was a source of great confusion. Very few of the Randalls were actually blue, (and the word 'blue' evoked unintended connections to the unrelated Belgian Blue breed), and the word lineback created almost universal associations with the American Lineback and other lineback patterned breeds. Also clouding the issue was the inference that "Lineback" was a "definition" of the Randall breed when in fact their color pattern was only one characteristic of an otherwise distinct and unique breed."
Randall Lineback Breed Association breeders call their cattle Linebacks because that's what the Randall family called them. Says Randall Lineback Breed Association President, Joe Henderson, "It's a name that has served the breed well for a century."
In addition, the State of Vermont has designated the Randall Lineback the State Heritage Breed of Vermont.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy calls them Randall/Randall Linebacks on the ALBC Watch List.
So which is correct? Either … or both.
The herd grew. In 1994, Creech sold two heifers—the first she felt ready to part with—to Dianne and Phil Lang of South Kent, Conn., who already owned three Randalls and dreamed of establishing an organic dairy operation with the breed (which they have now done).
Over the next few years, 11 more herds were founded with bulls and heifers from Creech's herd. In 2000, Cynthia Creech was named The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's "Conservationist of the Year."
However, developed as they were for New England's cooler climate, Creech’s Randalls suffered through Tennessee’s six-month, sweltering summers. She vowed to return the cattle to their natural environment, and in 2002 she and her herd headed north. Their first stop was Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Va. The herd stayed there for two years before Creech and some of the cattle moved on to South Kent, Conn., where she manages Rock Cobble Farm, now home to more than 100 head of purebred Randall Cattle.
Through Cynthia Creech’s sacrifice and effort, this living piece of history survived. When asked for her take on the cattle she’s devoted her life to saving, Creech replies, “Randall cattle are one of the few breeds that retain their natural instincts and characteristics. They exemplify the innate traits of cattle raised on native New England subsistence farms. Calving ease, mothering ability, grazing efficiency, milk production and good health for many years are part of their package. Randalls have not been diminished through the single trait selection of typical modern agribusinesses. These cattle still know how to be cows in an efficient, functional and effective way. They are perfectly suited for—are in fact made to be--family cows or milk cows on small, grass-based dairy farms.”
And what, we ask, can we do to help this rarest of heritage breeds survive? “The Randall breed,” she says, “needs dedicated, long-term breeders who believe that the characteristics of these cattle are to be valued and preserved just as they are. These cattle, as all heritage breeds, should not be changed to fit into an individual breeder’s mold, but rather celebrated and saved for the marvelous survivors that they are.”
Randall Linebacks at Chapel Hill Farm
Joe Henderson, President of the Randall Lineback Breed Association and proprietor of Chapel Hill Farm, is one such breeder. He purchased part of Creech's cattle during her sojourn in Virginia and through aggressively working to increase their numbers, has established the largest herd of purebred Randall Linebacks in the world.
Like Creech, he hopes responsible farmers investigate the breed because he believes that increasing their population and establishing herds in other parts of North America is of vital importance. “Randall Linebacks,” he says, explaining this view, “will be ensured survival when their numbers have reached 1,000 in at least five geographically separated herds. At that point, by definition, the Randall Linebacks will be beyond harm's way from any individual calamity, human or otherwise.
“The Gordian knot of the Randall Linebacks, and of all extremely rare breeds,” he continues, “is that no one has known what they were good for in today's world because there were so few around. In my opinion, and in the opinion of others in the Randall Lineback Breed Association, the only way out of this dilemma is to produce enough Randall Linebacks so that two things can occur: a purpose sufficient to require a thousand breeding Randall Linebacks can be found and that enough Randall Linebacks can be produced initially to supply substantial demand.”
He goes on to say, “This fall, Randall Linebacks are getting the proverbial ‘job’ so necessary to a rare breed's survival. Randall Linebacks from Chapel Hill Farm—with menu attribution no less—will appear as special seasonal foods at 10 of Washington D.C.’s finest restaurants. The acceptance of Randall Lineback rose-veal by a chosen number of great chefs, which will grow by selection each year, is critical to the Randall Lineback's survival. My hope is that, once a viable market has been pioneered, large and geographically separate new herds owned by others can then be created and supported by the marketplace.”
Chapel Hill Farm's rose-veal is the lean, fine-grained, tender and tasty, pink flesh of 200- to 250-pound, 8-month-old Randall Lineback steers, pasture-raised without growth hormones or medicated feed. To produce it—and to decide which calves to slaughter and which to retain for breeding stock—Chapel Hill Farm maintains extensive records on their cattle. Monitoring weight gains is only part of the picture; every Chapel Hill Randall Lineback is given a qualitative conformation rating of one to five. The best bull calves are kept for breeding; the highest-rated cows are flushed and bred to several bulls. While all of the bloodlines represented in the Chapel Hill Farm herd are preserved through ongoing breeding, the crème de la crème of the animals are used to increase the breed's overall population at a faster rate.
“Using every advanced reproductive technique,” Henderson tells us, “including embryo transfer, as well as the finest methods of traditional animal husbandry, including grazing hundreds of acres of open pasture and offering the purest limestone-spring water, we’ve bred, calved and raised more Randall Linebacks in the past two years alone than occurred in the previous 10-year history of the breed.”
Henderson credits much of this success to Chapel Hill herd manager, Noah Travers, “a man who truly knows cattle” and to the Randall Linebacks themselves. “Randall Linebacks are beautiful creatures,” he tells us, smiling. “When I look upon the Randall Linebacks in my fields, I’m looking at a scene that could be three hundred years old.”
Wouldn’t you appreciate that view from your back yard? There are fewer than 300 Randalls/Randall Linebacks in existence. This is the most critically endangered breed of cattle on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Watch List. Responsible conservator-breeders are badly needed. One of them could be you.
About the Author: Sue Weaver is an HF contributing editor who raises a variety of livestock—some rare—on her farm in the Ozarks.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore or tack and feed store or subscribe online>>