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Benefits of raising Highland cattle

By Gloria Asmussen

A superior, intelligent animal

As a breeder of Highland cattle for eighteen years, I have found them to be a superior, intelligent animal. They are very docile, easy to handle and halter train, easy keepers and the meat is lower in cholesterol and fat, but higher in protein to all other breeds of cattle.

The Highland breed of cattle has lived for centuries in the rugged remote Scottish Highlands. The extremely harsh conditions created a process of natural selection, where only the fittest and most adaptable animals survived to carry on the breed.

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 island and were known as Kyloes, and the larger red animals were on the Scottish mainland. Today Highland cattle may be red, black, yellow, white, brindle, silver, or dun color.

American cattlemen from the western U.S. recognized the natural qualities of the Highland animal and imported them to improve the bloodlines of their herd. The Highland breed contributed in a great way to the success of the American cattle industry. The first recorded importation into the United States occurred in the late 1890s. The American Highland Cattle Association registry was first formed in 1948.

Few requirements

Highlands require little in the way of shelter, feed supplements, or expensive grains to achieve and maintain good condition and fitness. In fact, Highland cattle seem to enjoy conditions in which many other breeds would perish. Cold weather and snow have little effect on them. They have been raised as far north as Alaska and the Scandinavian countries. They also adapt well to the more southerly climates with successful folds as far south as Texas, Louisiana and Georgia. There are many folds of Highlands in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Less than ideal pasture or rangeland is another reason to consider the Highland breed. It has been said that the Highland will eat what other cattle pass by. The Highland is an excellent browser, able to clear a brush lot with speed and efficiency. Highlands will eat the new growth off multi-floral rose bushes, cedar saplings and even pine needles. The mature animals will rub their horns and bodies on the cedar trees and eat as far up as they can reach, making a browse line on the trees. They will eat the new oak leaves in the spring as they enjoy the fresh grass also.

Genetic advantages

Highlands have long eyelashes and forelocks, which help shield their eyes from flying insects, and as a result, pinkeye and cancer eye may be less common. Highlands do not stress easily, so stress-related diseases occur with less frequency. Also, other bovine diseases affect the Highland less, due to the genetic advantages they have achieved.

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.

In the southern hotter climates, the Highlands shed out and have a very short hair coat during the summer months, similar to other cattle breeds. The older the Highland, the more they will shed out during the hot weather.

According to one breeder, Highlands feed intake does not increase until -18 degrees Fahrenheit compared to 32 degrees Fahrenheit 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.

Living with humans

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. They can also be halter trained as easily as any other breed, even more so because of the Highland's superior intelligence.

Highland females conceive quickly, calve easily and breed back readily on native forage. Bulls are aggressive and durable breeders with some bulls breeding at 13 months old. Highland cows are noted for being highly devoted and protective mothers. They produce 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. Highland cows will average 900-1200 pounds when mature. Bulls will average from 1,500-2,000 pounds depending upon forage conditions. Highlands mature between six and seven years old. They usually will not add more weight gain after that time. Their body frame will be mature but their horns will continue growing until they die.

Better beef

In a recent study at Mayberries 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 beef than the pure Hereford group. 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.

Low fat, low cholesterol -- naturally! The Highland's double coat of hair insulates them rather than a heavy layer of fat, providing a leaner, healthier beef. Independent testing laboratories have determined that grass-fed Highland beef is actually lower in cholesterol than chicken. Fine dining restaurants and health conscientious people are steadily increasing their demand for the gourmet beef, soon to exceed available supply. Consumers are delighted with the lean, tender, flavorful meat with little or no waste. The British Royal family maintains a "fold" of Highland Cattle at Balmoral Castle and considers them their beef animal of choice -- a rare opportunity for commoners to eat like royalty.


Crossbreeding with a Highland bull on commercial cows virtually eliminates calving problems and increases calf survival with strong and healthy calves. Many commercial cattlemen crossbreed their first-calf heifers with a Highland bull to produce a small first calf. Crossbred calves will retain their familiar appearance. The horns are recessive and will disappear when bred to a polled animal. Due to the hybrid vigor, research has found the gains in crossbreeding cattle are proportional to the genetic diversity of the animals crossed. As Highlands have been virtually untampered with since the 12th century, their genetics are quite different from most other cattle. This provides maximum heterosis effect in crossbreeding. Highland cross calves will have increased vigor and hardiness, as well as natural disease resistance, forage ability and high efficiency.

Highland cross calves will have the longer eyelashes and forelock like the Highlands. Highland cross steers gain and grade well. Hanging weight percentages of 60-65% are not uncommon, with ample marbling and no wasted back fat. Crossbred steers can be finished on grass with nominal grain or in feedlots. Highland cross heifers make ideal commercial brood cows. Medium-sized economical to feed and handle. They will calve with no assistance. They have high butterfat milk to feed a large calf to full potential and long productive lives.

Multi-purpose animals

Highland cattle can provide the opportunity to produce a premium quality beef with less cost and effort. They fit into a variety of styles of operations from small farm to commercial beef operations. They are a multi-purpose animal, producing meat, milk, and fiber. The fiber (hair) can be spun and is used by many spinners in producing garments. They may be used as oxen, or for clearing land of unwanted brush or you may just want to see him grazing in your pasture. So if you are looking for something different, well suited for the small acreage and less care, plus enjoyment, check out Highland cattle.

For a free informational packet on Highland Cattle, you may contact the Heartland Highland Cattle Association at 976 State Hwy. 64, Tunas, MO 65764 or call 417.345.0575 or email

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