This is a topic that always creates a lot of discussion so I thought I'd throw in my wee bit too.
Sound genetics are the most important aspect for the future of the breed. There is room within our breed for a wide range of differing genetics. No one should be criticised for choosing his or her own path, whether that is cute and cuddly or big and beefy.
For those of us who are keen to promote Highlands as a beef breed, it is of paramount importance that our animals are well presented to the public and the marketplace. The image that Highland Cattle are "small and skinny" is an unfortunate one … believed by some and exhibited by others. The fact that some equate skinny with hardy is ludicrous.
Few people would be aware that Highland Cattle at the end of the last century were a much larger animal in comparison with today's average.
In 1893 the official average weights for Highland Cattle were given as ...
As a comparison … one of our top bulls, James of Cruachan, weighed 848 kg at Royal Adelaide Show 1996. Mointeag of Trelissick, his dam, considered large by some, weighed 615 kg at Royal Melbourne Show 1993 … both are considerably smaller than that of yesteryear.
Today's figures would be more typically …
Should we then be attempting to attain weights and size of days gone by? Again that becomes a matter for personal choice. The old adage still holds true … its quality that counts not quantity. Just remember ... in recent years chicken has made large gains in the marketplace ... and a chicken is not a large animal, but the chicken industry have achieved a consistent quality in their product.
I believe that an animal cannot be made to grow beyond it's genetic potential. (Otherwise anyone interested in basketball could "breed" a 7 ft. 6 in. basketball champion simply by overfeeding their offspring … nice thought . . . but I don't think so!).
Therefore cattle can reach their genetic potential merely by ensuring that they have access to adequate food.
In our experience an animal that shows good growth rates will do equally as well on good quality pasture as it will being fed on a prepared feed (such as grains, hay, lucerne, mineral supplements).
So quite bluntly I do not hold with the theory that an animal is only "big" because it has been fed on grain.
Excess feeding can produce a fat animal but it will never make it grow into a larger frame size than its genetics allow. Excess fat can also lead to many other problems including reduced reproductive performance.
Inadequate feeding will of course produce a smaller animal. To go a stage further it can be said that inadequate nutrition at any point prior to an animal reaching maturity will affect its growth rate.
Depending on the length of inadequate feeding it may be impossible to ever catch up on what would have been the normal growth for that animal.
Footnote: The weights shown above in 1893 reflect the selective breeding carried out in the 1800's across all breeds of cattle. There is no doubt that Highland Cattle, as with all breeds, were smaller several hundred years ago.
This article discusses the Size and Weight of Cattle in Early Scotland (PDF file)