Yes, I will admit it. I am personally attracted to non conventional breeds of cattle. Or, maybe a better term would be “non-traditional”. I am writing this article at a time when I have just lost a grazing lease. This lease was in the second year of a five year lease. I will be repaid for the balance of the lease and it’s not the end of the world.
But it has made me “think” about my choices and options. Since I couldn’t find another property that suited me, I made the decision to sell my cattle. Part of that decision was based on the fact that maybe I have just too many irons in the fire right now and one less enterprise would not be a bad thing – for me or for my family.
Actually, cattle are basically a commodity, and should be viewed as an item that you buy and sell at opportune times. At present, cattle prices are pretty darned good, so it is a good time to sell.
From what I read, it appears that cattle inventory in the US is at a relatively low point however, consumer demand has also slumped with the economy the way it is. Reason would indicate that cattle prices should stay on an upward or current level, barring any unseen or unknown changes in the economy.
So what does this have to do with breeds? In my case, I have been grazing Highland Cattle. Yep, the short legged, long horned and hairy critters that are slow maturing and definitely do not fit into the traditional mold of the average cattleman.
The only potential problem I see with this breed is that they are hard to find, in numbers, when you want to buy them, and are harder to sell if you are in a hurry to sell. One thing is guaranteed – if you need to sell them at a sale barn – you will take a beating. In my case, I sold them all within a reasonable period of time for a fair price. But you have to be willing to make multiple small sales to people looking for them.
Here is just a little background on Scottish Highland cattle. They originated from northern Scotland. There are records of them in the 6th Century with documentation dating back to the 12th Century. They are a very old breed of cattle that hasn’t been tampered with much over all the years.
This area is basically surrounded by cold water ocean, strong winds, ice, rain, sleet and steep rough slippery country. Their confirmation and characteristics were evolved to adapt them to this type of environment.
Despite their appearance, they are a docile animal and I feel that they have a higher intelligence level. I liken them to a comparison of a mule and a horse. They tend to be level headed and can reason the facts to not put themselves into precarious situations.
How did they work in a grazing system? They worked great for me. They respected electric fencing greatly and were easily contained with a single strand temporary poliwire or 12.5 gauge high tensile wire.
As a salesman, I often travel away from home and not there to check on them on a regular basis which works fine with the Highlands because they are thrifty, hardy and can take care of themselves in all conditions. They were easy to move from one paddock to another and learned this rather quickly, as most cattle do.
They are not picky grazers and will eat some weeds and forages that other breeds would not. They are amazing foragers in winter, and do not hesitate to paw through snow to graze. I’ve never pulled a calf and they are not prone to most of the common ailments of traditional cattle. They do not require much doctoring. They will pretty much self wean their calves (I think because of the horns). In general they are very easy keepers.
Why did I raise Highland cattle? Basically, I love the meat they produce. And I love the low input way that they do that. They do not put on a lot of back fat as they do not need to with their hair coat. But they do marble well on grass only. The meat is full flavored, lower in fat and cholesterol, and higher in Omega 3.
So what’s the drawback or trade off? They are slower maturing. A good slaughter age for Highlands is around 30 months on good forages. Personally, I prefer 24 months minimum on the traditional breeds, however most of the meat that you will buy in the store is not much more than 14 months of age in a feedlot or 20 months on a grass fed diet. I don’t think that you get the best texture and fullest flavor until the animal has matured naturally.
Would I recommend Highland cattle for a grazing system? That would depend on a lot of factors and your mindset and/or lifestyle. If you want to get in then get out, I would not recommend them. If you want to set up a direct market for your processed beef and look at the long term, then yes I would recommend them.
I think it boils down somewhat to your way of thinking and the amount of time versus input costs that you incur. It would be up to each person to evaluate the math on keeping them on grass longer versus the input costs involved with most traditional breeds.
I also feel that there is a potential for crossbreeding to maintain some of the Highlands hardiness and thriftiness while reducing the slower growth rate for the commercial cattleman. The horns and hair are both recessive in crossbreeding.
In general summary: if you are willing to break with some pre-conceived traditions, they could be a consideration for you. If not, then you should probably stay with the traditional breeds.
Note: For additional photos and information about Gary’s Highland cattle, visit his website.