Yesterday, as I sat up in the warm spring sunshine in one of our hilltop pastures watching a newborn Scottish Highland calf interact with its mother, my thoughts drifted back to all the reasons behind our initial decision to choose this breed ten years ago. Given our experience since then, I have to conclude that it was an excellent decision, and one which I think would benefit your readers.
We raise registered Scottish Highland cattle because we like the qualities of this breed over all others. Esthetically, they are impressive, with long, shaggy hair and sweeping horns. While those horns can be intimidating, as a breed they are gentle and intelligent (well, for cows…). For quality of beef we find them to be unmatched: Excellent flavor, very little fat, tender, and juicy. Highlands have demonstrably low levels of cholesterol, for those of us who need to be careful. Highlands are an old breed, the oldest registered breed, and have had their genetics left largely unchanged for the past several thousand years
While the aesthetics and taste are important, more desirable as a long-term source of food are the breed’s bovine characteristics. Most significant, in my mind, is how little care they require. These beasts are built for self reliance and independence. They are extremely resistant to diseases. Their thick coat and thick hide protect them from weather, insects, and injury. The long hair over their eyes provides a very welcome relief from flies in the summer. And those thick, lush, hairy hides make incredible rugs and bed-covers on cold winter nights. We do a lot of winter camping and stay toasty warm under one, with no sleeping bags needed.
Their calves are born small, so they rarely need assistance in birthing and they rarely lose a calf. To date we’ve never had to pull a calf, and our herd has numbered as many as 45.
Equally important is the breed’s ability to forage. Like any cow, they prefer lush grass in the summer, and hay in the winter. But in times of drought or blizzards, they will eat just about anything. In fact, some Highland owners rent out their cattle to folks who want to clear the briars and brush from their woods. These are tough, resilient animals. Another plus is that they don’t require great fencing (we don’t use any electric fence). They show little interest in getting out of their pasture. They will if the fence is down (e.g., when a tree has fallen over it), but they typically wander back in on their own.
A bonus for folks who live in or near wilderness areas are the horns. Though they never use the horns in their own dominance struggles (they merely push heads), the horns are formidable weapons against predators. When coyotes enter our pasture, the alarm is sounded, and the mommas form a circle, facing out, with their babies safely in the middle (like musk oxen). The coyotes steer a wide course around them. It’s an impressive sight.
Our cattle are raised as naturally as possible. They have free-range access to lush pastures and clear creek and spring water. They do not require and are given no commercial feed supplements of any kind (i.e., no need to worry about contamination from feed containing animal byproducts or unknown chemicals). They are not given growth hormones, or antibiotics as a feed supplement. They are completely grass fed except for small amounts of rolled corn used for training. Routine feeding of grain to cattle is a waste of money; it merely produces fat. And, research suggests that exclusively grass-fed beef contains elevated levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural anticarcinogen, and markedly lower saturated fat levels. Feedlot beef (which is what one gets in a supermarket) is not grass fed, and those cattle are given large quantities of grains and chemical feed supplements.
With advantages come disadvantages: Highlands are a slow-growing breed. While most commercial breeds go to market in a year and a half, Highlands take an extra year. The same is true of breeding age—Highlands are bred at age 2-1/2, while other breeds are done at age 1-1/2. This is why you don’t see huge herds of Highlands in the beef growing states. But countering this slower growth is the fact that Highlands will continue breeding well into their teens. An acquaintance of ours recently had a calf born to a 19-year-old cow.
In sum, I don’t believe there is a better choice of breed for folks who want to have some beef cattle around. We had Angus prior to the Highlands. There’s no comparison. These cattle are ideal for rugged wilderness areas with mountainous climates prone to severe storms. But they also do well in warmer climates, with breeders throughout the American South. Where to find them? There are breeders in nearly every state. Go online to the American Highland Cattle Association. When shopping, deal with folks who raise and sell beef cattle, as opposed to those interested in show animals. The latter will cost 2-4 times as much as the former. And they taste the same. – Jack A.