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Scotch Highlanders

By Maxine Kumin (see footnote for more info on the author).
Source : Highland Breeders' Journal (1988), The Highland Cattle Society, Scotland.


The first time I saw a mass of Scotch Highland cattle in motion, the herd was coming down to its shelter in late afternoon. There they were rewarded with a sprinkling of feed in the trough, as an inducement to arrive regularly at this hour. Thus, new calves trotting behind their mothers could be counted, and note taken of the general state of the animals.

I was struck by the sheer heft of the cattle, a moving carpet of chestnut matting surging home, gradually differentiating into cows and bulls, calves and yearlings. We walked among them with impunity, patting this one and that, noting that herd's two sires were as unruffled and gentle as the cows. And before you could say American Scotch Highland Breeders' Association, Knoll Farm Samantha — a red heifer born on Bastille Day — became ours. To keep her company we acquired another yearling red heifer, Hopscotch Hope, who is one-quarter Jersey. In a year they have gained several hundred pounds between them, grown long backed and sturdy, and enlarged the merest buds of horns into formidable, almost-full sets.

"Scotch cows will do upon the poorest pasture," wrote the Englishman Thomas Hale in 1758, "and they will suit some who cannot rise to the price of other kinds." Today, however, the Highlander is a chic item and fetches chic prices. Newly weaned bull calves in the summer of 1981 went for $500 apiece, rather better than market prices for other breeds. Registered bred cows sold for $1300 or more. Highland bulls, however, don't fetch comparably high prices simply because sizeable herds for them to service do not exist. Most cross-breeding programs utilise Highland cows and, say, Hereford or Longhorn bulls, which further limits the need for the pure-bred Highland sire. Because of the insulating qualities of the Highlander's hide and hair, Highland meat lacks the thick outer layer of fat common to many other breeds. The fat is evenly dispersed throughout the flesh, giving it an excellent marble. Fine grained and tender, Highland beef graces the table of The Queen of England, who maintains a herd at Balmoral Castle and makes a practice of flying this beef in for her own meals when she travels outside her island.

Before there were Black Angus, before polled Herefords or Shorthorns or Santa Gertrudis were known, tough little Scotch Highland Cattle roamed the hilly regions and west coastal islands of Scotland subsisting on brush and browse. Their written records go back to the twelfth century. Archaeological evidence places them there as early as the sixth. The characteristics of the breed have remained remarkably uniform since that time. Hardy, quiet, docile and long lived are the easily substantiated claims put forth to extol these wonderfully prehistoric-looking creatures. With their fearsome horns and mucilaginous muzzles they suggest in the aggregate a herd of returned mastodons.

The Highlander's small body size means that it requires relatively little feed. A thrifty forager, it maintains weight gain in situations where more massive breeds cannot thrive. No other cattle subsist on less inviting browse. On the Stroh ranch in southern Colorado, described as typical arroyo terrain of sagebrush and pinon trees, the shaggy Highlanders fend for themselves year-round with out so much as a calving shed for shelter. They are fed hay only during blizzard conditions and finish out on grass rather than grain. Deep, long -bodied, low set, the Highlander is profusely haired with a double coat. The undercoat is soft and downy providing superior insulation. The long outer-coat, which may grow to thirteen inches, is well oiled to shed rain and snow. Tests conducted in Canada to assess the cold weather vigour of various breeds reflect this built in insulation. The Highland breed proved hardier than any available bovine tested except bison.

Eye problems are almost unknown in the breed. The exceptionally long forelock hangs down over the eyes and provides excellent protection against blackflies, deerflies, face flies, and bot flies, all of which bedevil other livestock in the Northeast. To mosquitoes and no-see-ums the Highlander presents an impervious surface.

Highland cows make excellent mothers. Because of the breed's short neck and small head, calving problems are rare. Cows do not hide out their new-born, but stay with them until they are old enough to travel. New-born calves do not chill, even when born in severe weather. Dwarfism is virtually unknown. Losses are modest: diseases seldom strike.

Moreover, the Highlander is famous for its homing instinct. If one strays through a fence or becomes separated from the herd during a blizzard, it will almost invariably find its way back to the fold. In the West heroic tales are told of Highland cattle horning through snow, fogs and deep drifts to their own territory. Our two heifers have wandered into the woods, ambled onto a dirt road a mile from home, trudged along it to our mailbox, and escorted themselves almost half a mile uphill to their pasture gate.

But perhaps the single virtue and key to future growth of the breed is its hybrid vigour, or heterosis, to use the geneticist's term. Because the Highlander descends unchanged from a genetically uniform population and is thus of different genotype from other cattle, it provides a successful cross with Herefords, Shorthorns, Longhorns and Brahmans, to name the most popular combinations.

"They dress out like a rabbit," warned the local pundit, who had come to deliver a truckload of fence posts and stayed half the morning to inspect Samantha and Hope. Official statistics however prove him wrong. Over the last eighteen years Scotch Highland Cattle have received thirteen grand championships or reserve championships with pure-bred and crossbred animals. In Colorado the Stroh Ranch Highland-Shorthorn crosses consistently win the Western Livestock Show in Denver. Last year's winning heifer, which took top honours for quality and yield of carcass, weighed in at 619 pounds (280kg). To get technical about it, the fat thickness was 0.38 inch (10mm), the rib-eye area 13.38, the carcass index 52.22. Translated, that means that the layer of fat measured over the animal's twelfth rib was only 38/100 inch thick. The rib-eye area, site of rib steaks, measured 13.38 square inches (87 sq. cm). Of this 619 pounds carcass — boned out and trimmed closely and uniformly — 52.22 percent was returned in the four retail cuts established by USDA standards, round, loin, rib, and chuck. These are hardly rabbit-like figures.

Although forty states are represented in the current American Scotch Highland Breeder's Association membership list, ranging from two farms in Rhode Island to fifty in the State of Washington, the three main pockets of breeders are in Colorado, Minnesota and the north-central states, and northern New England, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts account for thirty-eight farms. More than 13,000 registrations were recorded nation-wide in 1977. Numerous unregistered others, like our part Jersey heifer, graze across the continent.

Virtually all herds live outdoors all winter and are fed supplemental hay only when the snow gets too deep for any grazing. Many breeders report that when the snow crust is thick, Highlanders will break it with their horns and paw down through substantial snowfalls to suitable browse. On a thirty-five-below-zero night last January, in the teeth of a forty-mile-per-hour wind out of the north, Samantha and Hope abandoned the stuffy confines of their shed in favour of bedding down in the air-conditioned pine grove. Is it ever too cold for the Highland breed? In Minnesota one breeder advertises his "unpampered cattle, raised out of doors in a climate less than ideal" where temperatures plummet to fifty below.

Crossbreeding with Longhorns, Shorthorns, Herefords and Brahmans tends to produce rugged cattle, popular on western ranches where livestock must forage over considerable distances and travel miles between watering places, munching contentedly on undesirable weeds, brush, and tree leaves. Daniel Flynn, on Wilbraham Mountain in Massachusetts began seven years ago with three Highland heifers, which he used as brush cutters to reclaim old pasture grown back beyond his ability to keep up with the forest's steady encroachment. Now he runs thirty head on forty acres of rescued land, well fenced with three strands of barbed wire and — where temptations are strong — woven wire stock fencing. Between May and October his cattle require no daily labour. Only the calves are creep fed good hay — allowed access through slatted openings too narrow to admit their mothers — until they are a year old. In winter, he feeds hay in various locations, dropping bales from a pickup truck in areas that have recently been cleared of trees, so that the resultant manure there will help establish a new stand of grass the following spring.

Henry Carse in Hinesburg, Vermont runs forty-five registered Highlanders and a number of crossbreds. He prefers the Shorthorn cross, but has used Angus and Hereford as well. Last year he sold sixty-five sides of beef out of his locker to satisfied customers. Like Flynn, Carse sees the Highlanders as a useful alternative to such labour intensive crops as truck farms or orchards.

In our own experience, the Highlander has proved to be an easy feeder. Our original plan was to graze the heifers in sections of pasture the horses had just vacated in hopes they would clean up the tougher grasses the horses disdain. It was also our expectation that this procedure would cut down on parasite infestation by keeping the grasses uniformly short and exposing the manure to sunlight. But the Highlanders prefer to browse along the fence line on blackberry bramble, burdock, staghorn sumac, poison ivy, tree leaves and windfall apples and pears. Thus we have had to return to the rotary mower to clear out patches of tall grass.

The heifers have solved the garden glut, however. The massive undiscovered cucumber or zucchini is a Highlanders delicacy. They have done away with a twenty-foot row of beet tops, followed by ten chinese cabbages that had gone to seed. Late last fall they worked their way through eighty pounds of green tomatoes, devoured all the apple pomace from the annual sauce-making, and throughout the winter snacked happily on banana peels, grapefruit and orange rinds, and a dozen surplus pumpkins.

Given all its virtues, why has the Highland breed been so slow to gain acceptance? "Conservatism on the part of ag people," says Dr mark Wahlberg, extension specialist in animal science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "A man raises Herefords because his daddy and his grand-daddy raised them. And the Highlander's exotic looks may scare some people off. A lot of folks are prejudiced against horns. Horns take up a lot of room at the feed trough and can get in the way in loading chutes. And, of course, accidents can happen. When a big fellow goes to chase a fly off his flank with the tip of his horn and you're standing in the way, you can get a good nick"

The trend in beef cattle is toward something bigger all the time; the Highlander is not an ideal feedlot animal. But as Dan Flynn points out, " people don't stop to think that the bigger it is the more you have to feed it."

At present, only a handful of farmers are raising Highlanders or Highland crosses commercially. Many owners are hobbyists, not serious breeders, which creates difficulties for future generations, because hobbyists are not breeding selectively to improve foundation stock.

The oldest and biggest breeding farm in the Northeast, Pitcher Mountain Farm in Stoddard, New Hampshire has for many years been the mainstay of the industry. So many of their cattle have gone to establish other herds in the area that breeders like Carse and Flynn have chosen to import bulls — from Scotland or Colorado to broaden the gene pool.

Henry Carse feels that the breed does not thrive in warmer climates. He prefers not to sell his stock south of Massachusetts. He also believes that Highlanders do best at higher elevations.

But the main problem, most Highland enthusiasts agree, is lack of promotion. A wave of self-criticism washed over every breeder I talked to; the general consensus was that Highland people would have to get over the notion of using their association as a kind of private club.

It is amusing to think of these red, brindle, black, yellow and white shaggies as a snob bovine. In fact they derive from the most basic blue-collar roots. Circumstantial evidence indicates that the breed descends from the bovines of central Asia. The long reddish hair, solid conformation and stocky legs are traits shared by the now extinct auroch, the bison, yak, and musk ox of that region. In an essay published in the ASHBA quarterly, "The Bagpipe", (Spring 1980), Michael Fennell traces the hypothetical route they took northward from Tibet. He theorises that primitive drovers moved the precursors of the Scotch Highland breed across the Tarim Basin and then easterly to the fertile grazing ground around the Black Sea. Following ancient trade routes, the cattle gradually were driven north into Scandinavia across the Danish peninsula. From there they island-hopped westward into the territory of Scotland. In support of this interesting thesis he offers some convincing evidence that links Highland and Shetland ponies to their ancestors in the Mongolian tarpan and the related Przewalksi's horse, all of which share, with bisons and yaks, the shoulder stripes associated with their central Asian origins.

In a climate not unlike northern Scotland's though less forbidding than Tibet's, the Scotch Highlander stolidly munches its way across the northern United States and Canada. Facing into the wind and snow during a storm so that its long coat is blown flat rather than ruffled up, the Highlander endures and thrives. Perhaps, given the new trend away from grain-fed, feedlot-fattened animals, the Highlander is to become the backyard cow of tomorrow.

Footnote: This note about the author was printed along with the original article.
Maxine Kumin, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet and critically acclaimed novelist and short story writer, has lived for some years now on a New Hampshire farm that is increasingly self-sufficient and shared with an assortment of animals ranging from dogs and horses to shaggy Highland cattle.
She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for 1981-1982. In addition to "In Deep", from which this essay is taken, she has written four novels, eight volumes of poetry, a collection of critical essays, and a short fiction collection, and has taught at Washington University, Brandeis, Columbia, Princeton, and elsewhere.