After death of partner, lone heritage ox helps Stamford Nature Center teach about the past
STAMFORD — Moose is an introvert, said Nina Sherwood, a farm manager at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, but Monty was the natural extrovert.
He would eat anything you put in front of him — pumpkins, fruit, you name it. And he could play soccer too, she explained, as he did over the summer when kids at the center’s summer camp program kicked a ball into his pasture.
“They’re like big dogs,” said Sherwood, who also sits on Stamford’s Board of Representatives. And Monty was her favorite big dog of all.
Monty and Moose were the two gentle giants at the pastoral Heckscher Farm in North Stamford until this week. Together, the black-and-white dappled Randall oxen represented the cornerstone of the museum’s efforts to showcase the menagerie of animals once fundamental to New England farms.
That’s why this week was such a blow for the nature center and its staff. After nine years at the farm — the last year one of suffering through congenital joint problems — the team had to put Monty down, less than a month from his 10th birthday on Feb. 3.
Moose is now the only Randall Lineback ox at the farm, part of the decades-long effort to protect, preserve and educate the public on heritage livestock — animals whose numbers have dwindled because of the evolving modern agriculture system.
“‘Heritage’ is to farm animals as ‘endangered’ is to other animals,” said Lisa Monachelli, education director for the Stamford Museum and Nature Center.
Heritage animals, in many ways, formed the backbone of American society as it evolved and grew, experts say. They were the animals that early farmers and homesteaders used to feed their families and communities. That’s particularly true for the Randall Lineback, the cattle family that Monty and Moose belong to.
While the specific origins of Randall cows, bulls and oxen are fuzzy, the name comes from a family farm near Vermont’s Green Mountain Forest, where Samuel Randall raised a 20-cow herd. Like most of the era, the cattle were multipurpose; farmers could breed them for milk, meat or work, unlike today’s livestock.
“As agriculture evolved, we started to select divergently for beef animals and milk animals — those evolved into different breeds,” Joe Emenheiser, a livestock specialist at UConn’s College of Agriculture, said. “Fundamentally, it was inefficient to have animals that were producing both.”
The Randall family bred its cattle until the mid-1980s, when Samuel Randall’s son, Everett Randall, died, according to the Randall Lineback Breed Association. But upon the younger Randall’s death, one thing became apparent to agriculturalists: The cattle were the last identifiable and living breed molded explicitly to the region.
“They were bred to thrive in rugged, early Vermont, which was pretty wooded and didn’t have a lot of extra feed resources, had hard winters,” Emenheiser added. As a result, Randall cattle are smaller than today’s standard ox and need less food to be productive.
They’re also incredibly good-natured animals, making them especially well-suited for education programs like the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, he said. In fact, most heritage cattle are used for educational purposes, according to Emenheiser. And they’re seeing a more practical resurgence, thanks to an increased interest in farming from young people.
With fewer resources, self-sufficient homesteaders are turning to heritage breeds as a means of connecting with the land and its agricultural systems, he said.
“It’s an agricultural revolution,” he said. “An increasing percentage of the population is more interested in where their food comes from, and not depending on large corporations or commodity agriculture to produce for them. They want to be involved in doing it themselves.”
As for Moose, he’s far from alone — he still has the rest of the nature center’s cattle to keep him company. As Sherwood feeds him a wad of hay, another one of the farm’s bovines — a cow named Nessie who nearly dwarfs Moose — bounds towards the ox, Sherwood and the promise of food.
“They’re always ready for food,” Sherwood says, as the two happily munched from her palm.
Verónica Del Valle is a reporter covering growth and development for the Stamford Advocate and economic mobility for Hearst Connecticut Media Group. Verónica graduated in 2020 from American University, where she earned both her bachelors and masters degrees. Her work has appeared in NPR and The Washington Post.