my little highland

We went down to see Angelica and her family a couple days ago. We adore her and I really wanted to talk about cattle. If you didn’t know, it’s all about cowscowscowscows these days! Angelica has tended Highlands for 6 or 7 years now, I remember when we visited right after the first calf was born on her farm in the summer of 2011. Her starter herd has grown into quite a fold of gorgeous cattle, 3 of which are young heifers. 10981162_10205270845987477_8766193749744822506_n
Do you see where this is headed? That’s right- I am about to get my first heifer!  (Well after I come back from Canada in mid-March.) In the very middle of this picture is a dark red little baby cow, her name is Ella and she was born in July. She’s the color of the last part of an autumn sunset and small enough that I can work with her as she grows up, which is ideal for training my future milk cow. I know milking a highland is kind of a crazy idea, but I am really excited to try it. I tend to gravitate towards crazy ideas, and so I’m so grateful to Angelica for agreeing to sell me one of her precious babies!!!
Now in previous posts I have acknowledged several hindrances to getting heifers or cows, instead of buying young steers for pasture finishing. For one, Ella won’t be able to be bred until July of 2016, and her potential calf would then be born 9 months later, and that’s when I could potentially start milking her. Milk and butter is then 2 years out. I also say potentially because Highlands can be very protective mothers, and even if I train her very well, there could be complications which may prevent my idea from working. I have read a few accounts of people who milk highlands, but they are not the normal milk cow to be sure. My favorite post is this one from Becoming Kindred, a woman who milks her jersey/highland cross, I can absolutely picture myself in this setup, can’t you? We’ll see how it goes, and I will for sure be writing about it!
The second complication is that Ella has not had much interaction with humans. Angelica’s whole herd is used to people being around, but the calves haven’t been handled much, this is the usual way with Highlands. Even though the herd overall is gentle, you don’t mess with a herd’s babies. Even when I went to go take this photo, the bull came around the other round bale to watch me. They are protective of the young ones, and the adults’ horns are definitely to be respected and actually feared. Getting Ella away from her family and out of the pasture will be an interesting experience.
My plan is to keep Ella and my goat May May together as pasture buddies until we get our Highland steers, and then go from there. Ella will be taught how to walk with a halter, to be gently handled all over, to be brushed and loved on. Oh I am SO excited! I trained our dairy bull calves to walk on a lead and it was really fun once they figured it out. I used a loop of twine behind their butts as well as a simple halter and lead. The two pressures helped them understand they should move forward, and then they started to respond to just the halter being tugged on. Awwww remembering last summer, taking my 3 calves on a walk down the road, such fond memories. I think May May will be a good example to show Ella the ropes, as she walks on a lead and is pretty well behaved. May May- are you listening?
For anyone else interested in Highlands, I wanted to share some great info I found in the comment section of a Highland Promo video on Youtube, written by a person named Erin Owl:
“Thank you for the wonderful video.
This LONG comment is my two cents, carefully written for people watching the video and considering whether or not to choose Highlands as their homestead or commercial breed of cattle.
We’ve bred Highlands for 20 years now – after having had many breeds of beef and dairy for three generations. There is no breed of cattle that compares to highlands. They can survive where no other breed of cattle can. And their meat is the best beef with no breed coming close. If it is possible, butcher your own meat, compare the lines you breed for flavor and texture and be careful to breed the best. We found one line (bull) not nearly as delicious as the other lines we had chosen. It is the only breed that can be grass finished. (Fed ONLY grass/hay up to date of butcher). We find this is the ONLY way to grow meat.
I do not think people can appreciate what it means that Highlands grow slowly until they have grown them. Modern commercial beef is bred to grow on GRAINS, quickly. If these modern breeds are not fed OPTIMAL (human) foods on a DAILY basis, they become stunted. It is not practical / sustainable to feed grains to cattle in the world we live in today, on any homestead or in any commercial operation (where money is important). Highlands can survive, breed, calve and grow on unbelievably “poor” (non human) forages because they grow slowly and continuously their entire lives – 18 years or so. In this way – continuous growth – they do not become “stunted” – they simply continue to grow more slowly – adjusting to their environment. Stunted cattle are evident in dairy calves fed milk replacer and hay of poor quality and beef calves not fed “proper” feed quality or quantity – the bony, pot bellied calves frequent in “beginners” yards, etc.
When selecting our stock years ago, we found people feeding 15 lbs of grain per day to highlands to speed up their growth and “achieve their genetic potential”, make them “acceptable” and “winners” at show, etc. It is sad to see. Highlands DO NOT COMPETE WITH HUMAN BEINGS FOR FOOD when raised as Highlands. They turn INEDIBLE food into human food – meat or milk and to DRAFT energy. Our goal with converting our farm to Highlands years ago was to turn what we could grow (grass) into human food and to get rid of all barns, hired labor and purchased feeds. ONLY Highland Cattle could do this for us. If you become good “grass” farmers, Highlands will help you convert grass to food.
They are the most intelligent cattle and one of the most intelligent animals we have ever worked with. They are pleasant, come on a CALL, (not driven), tolerate heat and 30 degrees below zero F, heavy snow, ice storms, wind, flies, mosquitoes, lice, etc., with ease, graze, calve and milk where other breeds would PERISH, and while our beef neighbors lose entire calf crops to coyote packs, in 20 years we have never lost ONE calf to any kind of predator.
Please be advised that unless managed, we do lose calves to fly strike in warm spring weather – flies lay eggs on the calves and maggots eat the calves alive. To remedy this – calve in cooler/non-fly seasons or you can catch them and apply a few cc’s of fly concentrate down the back line of newborns. This is the only problem we find with Highlands – but it is in all dairy and beef breeds in our area – not unique to Highlands.
If you expect your Highlands to defend and protect their calves from predators then NEVER use dogs to round them up. They will come on a call. Keep your dogs away – Highlands will chase your dogs or be chased by them. They are VERY predator aggressive. That is invaluable.
IF you are considering Highlands as your breed of cattle – PLEASE respect and preserve them – don’t try to make them into a different breed.
To make your experience enjoyable – get a good wooden cane (it is your “horn” and makes you the BOSS cow), – tap them on the horns to control pushy cows, rowdy “teenagers” etc., tap them on the tail head to move them in a corral. Teach them (USE) words for “come on” and “let’s go”.  Also, get a “scotch comb” (metal “rake”) with which to make friends of all your cattle and calm yourself and enjoy your herd. Never feed them grain – either for “growing” or for “treats” (they will fight over it). Teach them to come on a call – whenever you visit (enter a gate), feed hay in winter, etc. Walking thru your herd will soon become one of the most enjoyable things you do. NO FOOD TREATS except from outside the fence.
WATCH OUT FOR BACK FEET. Highlands are very “survivor” oriented. And standing behind or beside an “untamed” calf or young adult will result in severe, FAST kicks. Once tamed, they will never kick you or hurt you with their horns. They are very careful and deliberate, not freaky.
We chose to make our herd a CLOSED HERD because of the limited numbers available when we started and because of such diverse goals of nearby farmers (breeding for TALL, or show or certain pedigreed – high $$$$ highlands). We chose pure scottish lines and sound non-scottish lines, selected for MILK production (heavy calves not big udders) in our cows and the “Benmore Bum” (meaty hind quarters) in our bull lines. We then “closed” our herd and for 20 years have had no new blood. We selectively line breed from MOTHER lines. And now, 20 years later, we are still producing calves that are the same blood as from our original bulls and cows. That means that our first calf crop was 50% of our bull #1 and mom#1 and today 5+ generations later, calves born are still 50% of that bull #1 and mom#1. If you put good genes in, you get GREAT calves. If you put garbage in and try to line breed, you get poor quality. If you find it very difficult to find quality stock (your standards) in numbers high enough to put a herd together, then you may want to consider a closed herd.  Switching bulls from new herds every year or so only DESTROYS the work you have done and in a few generations you have NONE of the genes / traits you put into your herd. THINK ABOUT THAT. Buying a new bull regularly REQUIRES that you have FELLOW BREEDERS with similar goals, AND BETTER quality stock than you have. If that is NOT the case, CLOSE your herd. This requires you buy only the BEST stock. (YOU define “best”). Otherwise, you will only be “BREEDING DOWN” in every generation. Breeding requires PREDICTABLE, CONSISTENT results. Find out how YOU can achieve that where you are. Does that mean you go “bull hunting” every two years? Study what line breeding means.
Another tip. UNLIKE other dairy and beef breeds, Highlands are a “maternal” breed. Holstein cows for example are the opposite  – you gather a bunch of poor quality, cheap cows and “breed them up” to GREAT proven bulls by cheap A.I. and in a few generations you have an amazing herd. Highlands are NOT that kind of breed. That means that you CANNOT buy a bunch of mediocre Highland cows and ‘breed up”: (fix all problems) with a “great bull” every few years. Highland mothers STAMP their calves so that 5 generations later you can still walk thru your herd and “see” “mom 1”, “mom 2” in your calves. So in selecting your herd – select Herd MOTHER lines – deep ribs, wide hips, sloping hip pins, high milk (measured in plump calves not big udders), and TEMPERAMENT. You will be breeding MOTHER lines to one another. And while some cows make great daughters, a bull should NEVER be kept from them.
TEMPERAMENT is the number one cull, number one cull, number one cull reason. REPEAT. REMEMBER that – it will save you money and generations of work when you can’t “fix” that SCREWY “great” cow and all her SCREWY calves. Or when at roundups, that ONE screwy cow and her screwy calves put head and tail up and head for the hills and the herd follows!!! NEVER buy a Highland that is not calm, friendly, easy to handle. And avoid “sales barn” Highlands – often there for that reason and where you cannot see any relatives. NEVER pay more than beef price for such an animal – because then, you can eat it – without a loss – if it doesn’t turn out. Remember, someone was WILLING TO PART with this animal for BEEF prices – so don’t pay more than beef prices to GAMBLE on it. Real Highlands are calm, easy to handle, and when let off a trailer they walk the fence line and start eating. If they are jumping the walls, running around with their chin and tail up, or prancing around – DO NOT BUY THEM. They must be curious, friendly and stable (even if handlers have made them afraid). Fear is natural, WACKO is INHERITED and calves from wacko moms come out wacko and just keep passing it on. Look at how a group is behaving and watch out for the “odd ball” relative to the herd’s behaviour.
Bulls – select for growth AFTER weaning – AFTER the mother has put her milk into her calf the calf is growing from its genes. In our day, the “Benmore Bum” was the line available. Check out the lines in your area. Notice patterns in the herds you visit. We selected for SHORT bulls, well fleshed, excellent milking mothers with great udders, deep rib in both parents, fleshy hind quarters, sloping hip (straight top line) and never get “dippy backed” (high hipped) cattle. Learn what a good bull looks like before you buy one. STUDY HIS MOTHER and all her daughters and relatives in the herd. Bulls should have “no necks” and cows should have “ewe” necks. Cows with “no necks” are stingy milkers, bulls with “necks” are frail not bully. FAT milking mothers is a contradiction. Milking mothers put their FLESH into their calves. They are ‘skinny” when milking. FAT cows should be butchered – and taste great.
Another bull tip – select for large scrotal circumference – it has been linked (proven) to early maturity in daughters. This means the difference between Highland heifers calving at 2-3 or not until 5 years of age! We culled all lines that calved late and selected all bulls for large scrotums = early maturity. The Gilbeveh breed got their age at calving down to two years simply by measuring scrotal circumferences in bulls and using those with the largest circumferences.
FEET on both cows, bulls and all ancestors on site should be IMPECCABLE – NEVER TRIMMED, nice and short and sound. Front hooves on bulls should be huge – they hold up all the weight of the bull. No deer hooves. We found in 20 years that while low heel was extremely important not to have in dairy cattle (on concrete) it had NO effect in longevity or production in our Highlands. But WIDE front hooves did – they must have big front feet. You will usually only find “long toes” in GRAIN / SHOW herds where the hooves grow so fast due to over feeding. It may take two years for this to stop, during which time you may have to trim if you select this individual for breeding. We did not find long “grain” hooves inheritable. Otherwise, long or crossed hooves were inherited.
NEVER select a bull from ANY cow with marginal temperament or ANY kind of udder problems (swollen, large teats, low hanging udder, “bottle raised calves”, mastitis) Whenever you hear a problem say to yourself: “I want MORE of that in my heard” – really? Because THAT is what you are thinking of REPLICATING on a LARGE SCALE if you pay for such a bull. NEVER buy a bull at a sales barn where you cannot SEE his relatives and/or calves depending on his age.
Horn shapes are a personal taste – but you don’t eat the horns. They are inherited from the mothers.
BEWARE “breeders” who go out and BUY pretty cows or “good”‘ cows but cannot make them.
DO NOT find a Highland breeder to “buy” stock for you. Keep some on a small scale, ask them to TEACH you to have an eye, skills, etc., ask to PAY THEM to mentor you – to allow you to tag along when they buy and sell stock, etc. BUT if YOU don’t know enough about Highlands to SELECT them for your herd, then YOU don’t know enough about Highlands to have a herd from which to select! LEARN LEARN LEARN. For the love of the breed, I’m teaching you a crash course here for FREE!
DO NOT listen to “show” breeders (grain feeders) who tell you not to buy from “commercial” Highland breeders because your “calves will be wild”, etc. FIRST – commercial breeders SHOULD be feeding for meat not show – so you are more likely to get grass fed cattle. This means the cattle can digest COW food (grass/browse) AND you are more likely to be able to tell what the cow really looks like, not what grain looks like on a Highland cow. SECOND – all Highland calves are “wild” (not tamed) when born. We purchased a large portion of our stock from a commercial herd and they were all “wild” (not “pets”) – NOT the same as “screwy”. And all (except for one – which was evident at the sale but chosen for color) “came around” simply by swiping them with the comb in passing until they “chased us” to be combed and became best friends to the end of their days. FYI – the one that was “screwy” at the time of sale – never did come around, charged us with each calving and she and 2 generations of her calves were culled for temperament (NOT improved by breeding to nice bulls) – so the whole “line” was a waste of time, effort and a loss that could have been used to develop a different, useful line.
Lastly – to be fair to you and to Highlands – research the best Highlands available in your “area” – for the traits that are Highland. Select a FEW to try out for a year thru all seasons. Buy weaned calves if you are “afraid” of the big horns. Don’t start with cattle that intimidate you. See if they fit your homestead or business, your personality, your goals. THEN, get more. You’ll know your goals better, what to look for as you stare at these newbies daily. You’ll learn to develop “an eye” – notice the subtle differences – become more objective. Get out there and take body measurements to find out what you think you’re seeing. And you’ll be ready to tell breeders what YOU want, not be told what they want you to want. You also won’t be afraid of Highlands anymore and will be comfortable purchasing strange, BIG, BIG-horned cattle.
DO NOT be afraid to look at “show” herds or small herds as sources for stock – once you know what YOU want – there are gems out there. If you find cow lines (leys castle were the milking cow lines available to us) or bull lines (gille buide of benmore was the “bum” line along with the Ben Eniglair of Scone Palace line available to us) – check pedigrees for such lines even in the smallest herds – pick out the diamonds in the rough thru records on “outcross” lines. The cows you choose will produce calves for you at least to 16 yrs so do not make your choices lightly. Having great maternal lines means you make a great herd from what you select. Select well. Purchase price is really quite irrelevant (within reason). Your biggest expense will be in caring for a “cheap” animal or a “good” animal. From our personal experience, all our mother lines of quality enough to keep bulls are all from commercial herds and the one “show cow” line we bought we only keep daughters out of due to various flaws that showed up.
If you have a small herd (under 50) TIE UP YOUR CALVES or heifers or young bulls when you get them home and every year at weaning. Use a rope head halter and tie them along a barn wall or put them in a “box stall” set up with NO free choice water. Carry water to them or make them come to it and swipe at them while thirsty with the scotch comb once or twice (starting on the head but trying for the neck). Once you get their neck and they like it – let them go – you’ve got a tame cow for life. This may take a few days or a week.
WHY “waste your time” in “taming” them? For one thing, you’ll find out what their temperaments are and get rid of the wacky ones before they manifest thru a PROBLEM in your herd. Another practical answer: when we decided to commit “all in” and convert our farm from dairy to  Highlands after a one year trial with weaned calves, we put together a “herd” of diverse ages from 8 different herds. One wintry/spring night, in fog you couldn’t see 5 feet, a cow had rubbed on a gate and broken the chain and the whole herd got out – GONE! We called and called – they answered from a mile away! As our “conversation” continued,  the “boss cow” led them running up the road, around our house and right back into “home”. By comparison, over the years we chased (CHASED!!!) escapee dairy cattle miles and miles from home, thru glens, other farms, etc and finally FORCED them, “home”.
Highlands are like homing pigeons. They LIKE their home, they want to come home. And if you CALL THEM, they will COME home. We NEVER could have rounded up those cattle (when we could find them after the fog lifted) without great effort. Instead, within 15 minutes, they came home all by themselves. This is not a unique story to us. Many Highland breeders have just such stories. And yes, against “better advice” many of these were adult, “wild” cattle from “commercial herds” that would “never be tamed”. (Compared to our hand raised, bottle baby dairy cattle which couldn’t be CHASED home and RAN – AWAY – from us!
If you are thinking of selecting Highlands, adopt this principle – raise them only if they are what YOU like – not something to please other people. This year this animal is the new “hot item”, next year that animal is “the must have” – ostrich, bison, llama, rabbits … You will always be buying high, selling low (when unpopular) and you will inevitably be “STUCK” with what you buy. So buy what YOU like, not what you ‘should like”. And know what YOU want. Highlands DESERVE to be a commitment, not a gimmick or fad.
If you are in a sparse Highland area – start where you are with the best available to you – the very best you can find.
And, please – for their joy give them a cool water source to soak their feet in or a pond to wade in – it will make them so happy, clean and the joy you will receive from it cannot be appreciated until you have experienced it.
I hope that if you decide Highlands are the right breed for you, that you will RESPECT them and maintain and pass them on to future generations as they have been preserved and handed down for you – as Highlands.
Best wishes to all –
A Highland Preserver.”

5 thoughts on “my little highland

  1. I am a lover of cows and my dog is named Ella so your little heifer story is so sweet and special. I grew up in a farming community but reading your post I learned so much more than I have ever known. You are a true farmer in your soul and I cannot wait to see how the life of little Ella develops.

  2. Congrats and I’m looking forward to your reports once you have your heifer. 🙂

    Lots of interesting info and advice in that post. I was interested to read that Highlands grow slowly all their lives. We’ve discovered that is the case with Boer goats too.

  3. Congrats Khaiti on your new Critter!!!! Great information.

    My best advice to your followers, is to spend as much time as you can with your (Highland) Cattle. Simply moving amongst them in an indirect fashion, talking (and singing.) Interact as if you were one of them and know that they are observing you as much as you are observing them. If you are calm and unconcerned, they will reciprocate. Skittish horned animals are dangerous. Invest the time.

    I would also like to enforce the importance of good breeding stock. Good genetics pays for itself. Not everyone is reputable. There are ignorant and irresponsible breeders out there. When we were looking for a replacement Bull we visited a local breeder(?) My first impression was the facility was nice, but was immediately struck by the fact that all (20-30) of the cattle were the exact same color (my herd looks like the League of Nations.) As I looked closer I saw there were no facilities to separate the cattle. He had Fathers breeding daughters, sons breeding Mothers, calves born at all times of the year. It was like the last days of Caligula. The animals were dangerous and lived a life essentially void of human contact. It was like a Bovine puppy mill. The entire herd should be ground into hamburger. I left very angry. It took every bit of self control I had not to knock the breeder on his ass.

    Keep up the good work and good luck.

    1. thanks Mark for reading and for your input! Singing with animals is my favorite thing ever! You guys do a tremendous job with your herd I must say! I can’t wait work with Ella, and she is the daughter of my friend’s very best cow, and a totally unrelated bull, so I think we off to a good start, and the farm we are getting our steers from is also very careful with their stock, breeding for excellence versus a quantity of animals. It is so awful that irresponsible animal care and tending is so common, but we have to do our own personal best and keep these discussions open to hopefully encourage others to do the same.

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