Rare heritage dairy breed thrives at Maine farm

A cow is a cow is a cow. Eh … not so much. First of all, you have the distinction between beef cattle and dairy cattle. Beef cattle are, well, beefy – thick, broad, muscular. Dairy cows are more angular, raw boned. Their hip bones stick out, and then of course there’s the huge udder. Beef also have udders and produce milk for their young, but their udders are generally not as ample.

Then you get into the dual purpose cattle. They don’t give as much milk as a full-blown dairy cow nor do they fill the freezer like a larger beef breed, but they often give enough of both to fill the needs of a small family homestead operation. These breeds were much more common back when everyone had a small farm and took care of their own dairy and meat needs. While the numbers of these cattle have dropped off considerably, people are working to conserve breeds like the Randall Cattle. If you haven’t heard of this breed before, there is a good reason – it’s extremely rare. Its origins, though, are right here in New England. And at least one farm in Maine is continuing the tradition of this beautiful breed.  And it truly is beautiful with distinct black (red is a recessive gene) speckled markings surrounding large blocks of black that often cover their entire side and a black nose. Their eyes are black with thick black lashes, and they look like they go heavy on the eyeliner. They are black and white but look nothing like a Holstein. The Randall is what is known as a “landrace” breed – a breed developed to thrive in the climate and surroundings of any given region, like northern New England. At one time the breed was down to just 15 cattle, all inhabiting one farm in Vermont. When their owner, Everett Randall, passed away in 1985, the cattle were rescued, and people are still working to bring their numbers up. There is another breed with some similarities, known as the American Lineback. It has the large black blocks of color running down either side with a white stripe down the spine and white leg markings, but it is unrelated. In the past, the Randall has been known as the Randall Lineback, but there was confusion about the two breeds, so that has been dropped.

Husband and wife team Steve Burger and Sarah Wiederkehr have learned a great deal about the Randall breed since taking over at Winter Hill Farm two years ago in Freeport. Sarah says the breed is hardy and has a good disposition, characteristics that make it a favorable breed for her despite their lower milk production. “They make less than half what a Holstein makes,” she said. They have added a few Jersey cows to the herd because the fat content of the Randall milk was too low to meet the whole milk standards, but Sarah does not like the personality of the Jersey breed as much. “They are a bit more skittish and high strung,” she said.

Jersey cows were added to the herd to increase the milk fat content.

The previous owners had already established a small dairy there with the Randall cattle, selling milk and yogurt. Steve and Sarah added artisanal cheeses to add value to the milk and diversified the farm to produce vegetables, flowers, pork and eggs. They previously lived in California, but Sarah is from Brunswick and after being gone for 17 years and the birth of their first child, she wanted to be closer to her family. “And we both wanted to get out of California,” she said. “The people who started this farm were ready to pass the torch on to someone else.”

Steve and Sarah both have had a wide variety of farm experiences that they can draw on. Steve is from Missouri, where his extended family operated a large hog, cattle and grain producing farm. While in college, he worked for an organic vegetable farm. He has since worked on farms in New Hampshire, Colorado and California, the previous being a non-profit educational farm in Los Altos Hills, Calif., where he was the livestock manager.

Sarah fell in love with farming while in college. She needed summer work and left her work/study selection until the last minute. “The only job left was on the campus farm,” she said. “It changed my life.” She switched majors and has her undergrad and graduate degrees in agricultural sciences. In her fourth year of graduate school at University of California at Davis, Sarah started an educational farm just outside of Davis. She was in two masters programs at the time and was “farming by headlamp” to get her school and farm work completed. She met Steve in California when she purchased goats for the farm from him. She has also taught sustainable agriculture education at Stanford University.

It was Steve who wanted to milk cows when they moved to their own farm. Sarah’s focus is on the vegetables and making yogurt and cheese, as well as raising two young children – Isaac, 3, and Calla, almost 2. The couple also relies on apprentices through MOFGA. “The cows suck up all the apprentice time,” Sarah said. That includes animal care, milking, calving and processing milk and yogurt. They currently have one apprentice from Michigan.

“We’ve both had experiences being apprentices,” Sarah said. “We had some great mentors who led us to where we are, and we felt like we wanted to do it for someone else. Hopefully it’s a win-win situation. We get the labor we need, and the apprentices are getting the education they want.”

Winter Hill Farm has about 20 animals in its herd and milks 10-14 depending on who is producing at the time. They use three portable milking units that can be moved from stanchion to stanchion to milk the cows. The farm’s previous owners, Jim Stampone and Kate LaRoyer, were selling yogurt before Steve and Sarah came on board and had established a loyal following, so Sarah said they are sticking with what works. But she is mainly self-taught in cheese making.

“I read a lot of books,” she said. She is also a member of the Maine Cheese Guild and asks questions of the other cheese makers. She currently makes 5 or 6 cheeses, taking them to farmers’ markets in Yarmouth, Lewiston and Freeport in the summer and Brunswick and Lewiston in the winter but said making that many varieties is really hard on her. She would like to specialize in fewer cheeses and do them exceptionally well. As well as farmers’ markets, Winter Hill Farm also sells direct off the farm and at area health food stores.

Along with their produce, meats and dairy, Sarah and Steve also sell calves. As they are hard to find, there is a good market for Randall cattle. They sold four heifer (female) calves to a farm in Tennessee last fall and two to Minnesota in the spring. The farm’s Jersey bull calves are raised for veal, but Randalls are sought after for their skills as a draft animal – hauling logs in the woods or pulling stoneboats in competition at fairs. When a bull is castrated, he is then a steer and at 4 years old a team of steers can be considered working oxen.

“We get at least one inquiry a week. They come from all over the place,” said Sarah, adding that they have recently been contacted by people in Washington State and Canada.

NOTE: Winter Hill Farm will host a farm to table event with Rosemont Market and Bakery on their farm Sept. 15. The meal will be prepared by Rosemont chef Brad Messier.

Jami Badershall

About Jami Badershall

Jami Badershall is the Communications Manager for the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council and Maine Dairy Promotion Board. She also owns her own small farm. On "The Dairy Dish", Jami ventures to Maine farms, highlights events around the state, and gives you recipe ideas using local dairy products.