Reprinted from Countryside & Small Stock Journal By Lee Wolfgang
Highland cattle are the oldest registered breed of cattle with a Herd Book being published in 1885. The Scottish Highland Cattle Society was formed in 1884 and most of the cattle registered were black. Originally, there were two subgroups of Highland cattle, which today are merged into one. The smaller, mostly black or brindled cattle were raised on the western islands and were known as Kyloes, and the larger red animals of the Scottish mainland. Today Highland cattle may be red, black, yellow, white, brindle, silver, or dun in color. All these colors are recognized by the registry, but only solid colored animals are allowed to be shown in the sanctioned shows.
Archeological evidence of the Highland breed goes back to the 6th century with written records existing from the 12 th century. The first recorded importation into the United States occurred in the late 1890's when western cattlemen recognized the need to improve the hardiness of their herds. The American Highland Cattle Association registry was formed in 1948. The reasons these ranchers selected Highland Cattle are the same reasons why you should consider the breed.
Breed characteristics that make the difference include:
Hardiness and Vigor:
Highland cattle are noted for their hardiness and vigor. Natural selection over the centuries in the harsh climate of Scotland ensured that only the most efficient animals would survive to breed. The gene pool today remains largely intact allowing them to thrive where other breeds struggle.
The double coat of hair (long, coarse, outer layer and soft wooly inner layer) is one of the most notable differences between Highlands and all other breeds. The coat reduces the need for expensive barns and shelters. It is not unusual to see Highlands grazing a day or two after a winter storm with snow still melting off their backs as they are that well insulated. The long hair over the eyes (dossan) helps reduce the incidence of pinkeye and other fly borne problems.
According to one breeder, Highlands feed intake does not increase until -18 degrees F compared to 32 degrees F in many other breeds. In addition, the long hair means that the animal does not have to produce a layer of fat to stay warm. This allows the animal to marble naturally on low input forage while producing lean, low fat, high quality cuts of beef. Highlands shed out earlier in the spring and produce less hair in warm climates making them suitable throughout the U.S.
Highlands have a long, close history of living with humans. Early Scots would keep the cows downstairs to provide warmth for the family on the second story and to make sure the neighbors didn't help themselves to the family's wealth. Highlands tend to be docile and calm, do not stress easily, and are easy to work with despite their long horns. The horns are used primarily for knocking down brush to graze on, predator control and scratching. Horns on females are generally upswept and finer textured than are the males. Male horns are more forward pointing and massive.
Exceptional Mothering-Calving Ease:
Highland cows are noted for being highly devoted and protective mothers. They produce a rich milk allowing for steady weight gain in the calf. Highlands are noted for calving ease. Calves are small, 40-60 pounds and birthing assists are rare. Cows may produce into their late teens reducing the need for frequent herd replacements.
Unlike other breeds, Highlands are slow maturing making the meat fine textured and succulent. In a recent study at Manyberries Research Station, Canada , groups of Hereford , Highland , and Highland Herefords crosses were tested. The Highland group produced 2,000 pounds more beef than the purebred Herefords, while the Highland/Hereford crosses produced 6,000 pounds more than the pure Hereford group.
Highland cows will average 900-1,200 pounds when mature. Bulls will average from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds depending on forage conditions. A study by the Scottish Agricultural College determined that Highland beef is significantly lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein and iron than other beef breeds.
Highland Cattle Societies are found in Great Britain ( Scotland ), United States , Canada , Australia , and several European Countries. The animals are referred to as Scottish Highland Cattle, Scotch Highland Cattle, Highland Cattle or Highlanders. Regardless of where they are located today, Highland cattle can trace their ancestry to Scotland . Importations of Scottish stock and semen in the U.S. and Canada have served to assure continuation of the Highland gene pool.
Highland cattle provide the opportunity to produce a premium quality beef with less cost and effort. They fit into a variety styles of operations from small farm to commercial beef operations. They are a multi-purpose animal, producing meat, milk, and fiber. They may be used as oxen, or for clearing land of unwanted brush or you may just want the enjoyment of seeing a beautiful animal on your hillside pasture.