Cuteness is at the top of the list of desirable attributes of the Highland cow, but believe it or not, their seemingly miniature bodies and adorable fluff were not the defining traits that convinced us to include this breed into our farming program. Every time I'm in the field with them though, I'm pretty thrilled we did choose a cow who is incredibly photogenic and cute to look at.
Highlands are a rugged, rustic breed that originated in Scotland. They are known for being low maintenance cattle, good grazers/foragers, easy calvers, great mothers, and gentle giants (albeit short ones). As far as meat production, they are much slower to mature than standard beef cattle breeds like angus or brahman, but there are some great qualities that make Highland beef stand apart.
That lustrous coat does more than make Highlands lovable and cute, it insulates them for extremely low temperatures. They do not need to increase food intake until temperatures drop below -18! That thick double coat of hair also negates the need for lots of body fat to insulate their organs, so the meat is naturally lower in fat and cholesterol than typical breeds. This equates to a higher protein content per ounce, closer to venison and chicken.
Because they are a rugged breed, they are great foragers and are resourceful in their dietary and housing needs. When it's snowing, windy, or raining out, you'll often see them in the middle of the pasture minding their own; occasionally they seek shelter under a stand of trees. Highlands prefer to sleep out in the pasture and only make their way to the barn for breakfast. We of course have accessible shelter for everyone, but their durableness is visible in how they handle the elements.
They reside in the pasture with the goats, and between them all have majorly eaten down the blackberries and underbrush that had taken over the back pasture. This spring we'll add in some Idaho Pasture Pigs (another blog post) to clean up blackberry roots and acorns and the pasture will be moving in a sustainable direction! The extra goodies they ingest creates a unique and inviting flavor which makes their meat favorable to other breeds. It can
take a slight learning curve to master cooking leaner meat, but once you've figured it out you'll never go back!
Because they have a compact, smaller stature, they are gentler and less invasive on the ground in the rainy season. Not to say that they don't have an impact- our barn stalls say otherwise, but for the most part our land has stayed well intact through some exceptionally wet weeks. Their manure provides excellent nitrogen and fertilizer to revitalize tired soil. This makes them a solid contender for smaller properties and hobby farms.
The only disadvantages we can see to Highlands are two things: price point and time to maturity. To get a well bred cow, you're looking at a minimum of $1200 or so, all the way up. I was recently perusing a website of some top Highland breeders in the nation, and their heifers sell for $5000-8000 each. The bulls or steers sell for more like $3000-4000, which seems like a steal in comparison, but is a hefty investment for most farms.
The benefit to this is they don't lose their value. This isn't a new car you drive off the lot and automatically lose half of what you just paid. But investing in the cow, feed and care, infrastructure, and a bull for breeding can definitely add up fast. There's a reason grass fed beef is as expensive as it is.
The other possible drawback is that Highlands take a solid 18 months to two and a half years to be ready to butcher or breed, and aren't truly fully developed until between 3-4. This is a long game we're in. Our first heifer will be ready to mingle with Duncan (bull) summer 2022, which will mean our first homegrown calf will arrive spring of 2023. This is after we purchased her in January 2020. If you are considering this lifestyle and breed, keep in mind it's all about the big picture.
We purchase two angus steers each spring for these first couple of years before we have a Highland ready for butcher, to fill in the gap. This allows us to begin feeding our family much sooner and allow appropriate time for our heifers to develop. I'm not sure how I'll feel when we butcher our first Highlander we've raised up for multiple years. Bittersweet gratitude will likely be the overarching feeling our family will experience as we begin to harvest our own cows.
We are early on in the cattle raising game, but so far our fold (term for a herd of Highlands) of six- possibly soon to be seven- coos is serving our family and our farm well. I feel honored to be stewards of our land, understanding the tumultuous history of our origination here
brings a deeper connection and appreciation for the opportunity we have to regenerate this space of ours.
While we are not fully immersed in the regenerative farming practices at this point, we continue to make small steps to respect the entire ecosystem supporting us. Taking ownership in raising large livestock down to delicate flowers and supporting insect populations reveals the intricate web we are intwined in. The web that we as humans often forget we are an active member of.
All the way from our adorable, fluffy cows to the bumble bees and hummingbirds, every being serves a purpose and brings value to this space. Our goal as the stewards is to utilize as many aspects of the living creatures on this land as possible, in an organic and instinctual way. We find in doing this, farming is much less work than it is sometimes made to be (don't get me wrong, it's a ton of work). The effort is spent finding the balance, not managing the symptoms of imbalance. This work is both intuitive and foreign, simple and complex.
This is raising a family of six from our own land.