Story & Photos By Tom Fuller – Cattle have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and Highland cattle are by far the most memorable and entertaining breed of my cattle raising experiences. I spent much of my youth at Grandpa’s dairy farm, including milking cows in my later teens. At home, we kept our own herd of Black Angus. There were a lot of chores for a boy in those days. Years passed, but I always kept a little beef herd growing at my father’s farm. Over the years, I have enjoyed raising Jersey cows, Herford cattle, Simmental cattle, Dexter cattle, Charolais cattle and belted Galloway cattle. It took getting my own farm in my 40s to focus on the best breed of cattle I could truly enjoy and invest my limited time in.
Scottish Highland cattle became the most memorable breed for which I had the pleasure of caring. About this same time in my life I was investigating my own Scottish heritage. I became fascinated by this regal-looking hairy beast. Coincidentally, my best friend Donny had already acquired a pair of young Highlands. After one close up look, I was hooked. I set out to start my own herd of Highland cattle.
I tracked down the closest breeder for the American Highland Cattle Association (AHCA). I made an appointment to see his herd. I must admit I was apprehensive to walk out into a pasture with all those horns, including a bull. The breeder reassured me of their docile attitude. I was no stranger to cattle, and could also see they showed no threat. As for the bull, Daddy always said, “There is nothing more dangerous on a farm than a pet bull.” The reason: you turn your back on a pet bull. The breeders’ bull never concerned himself with our presence. And as I later concluded, they too were only gentle giants.
I soon bought four heifers, three for me and one for Donny, to enrich his growing herd. Only a week before I picked these girls up they were loose in a herd. One week tied to a halter, and we led them right onto the trailer. When I got them home I locked them in the barn, and in only a day they were taking treats and letting me brush them. I had never witnessed that much acceptance by a breed of cattle outside of pail-fed calves. As time passed, the girls would maneuver to me whenever I brought the cattle comb into the barnyard.
By the next summer, I borrowed Donny’s bull, Hogan, and hoped for the best. About nine months later, my first calf was born. I will always remember that day well. It was April with unpredictable weather. By the time I got home from work there had been a little icy snowfall. My first cow had calved, but no baby was in sight. I quickly searched and found her in the remains of a round bale in the pasture. She was dusted with snow, but snug as a bug in a rug. This was my first encounter with a Highland cow and calf relationship. I was cautious because Highland cattle can be very protective of their young. As I watched her over my shoulder, I picked up the slightly soggy 50 pounds of fur and started walking to the barn. To my delight, Niniel the mother just followed me back to the barn with soft moos. I put my first Highland calf in deep dry straw and Mom did the rest. They were so photogenic I took many pictures and showed them to everybody, including making a T-shirt.
In all my years of raising cattle, I had never shown any cattle or been part of an association like the AHCA. I think my membership was connected to registering my original stock. So I decided to give it a try. I truly enjoyed the people and experiences associated with this group. Going to shows and seeing Highland cattle at their best was very exciting. Sights and sounds of a Highland Piper starting the shows warmed my Scottish heart. I have a wonderful memory of a little girl not quite 7 showing a Highland bull of over a thousand pounds with just a halter. My enthusiasm prompted me to nickname myself “Tommy McCoos” when talking and emailing about my Highland cattle.
Acquiring my own bull was my next objective. I researched another nearby Highland cattle herd. There were several in New York State alone, with different bloodlines and hair colors. I found my first Highland bull for my new “fold” (the term for a herd of Highlands). He was a handsome black yearling bull who came with a steer. The steer would become my first exposure to Highland cattle. As I was signing the paperwork on my newly acquired treasures, I noticed a man ride by the office window. I had to look twice because this man was not on a horse. He was riding a Highland steer. My partner Donny and I rushed outside to see a full grown red Highland steer in complete western saddle and bridle walking as if he saw nothing wrong with being ridden. We later found out that he was one of a pair of Highland twin steers trained to be oxen. They were displayed at the Genesee Country Village in Mumford, New York. It was my understanding, however, as regal as a pair of these look pulling a cart, they tend to overheat too easily to be practical for work.
My new bull, “Gilchrist Argyle McDuff,” also known as Duffy, gave me some beautiful calves. I remember a little black heifer calf that reminded me of the little Angus calves I loved as a boy. Duffy gave me several calves before I sold him to my friend Donny. His memory is with me always. About this time we processed our first Highland for beef. What the breed association had forecast was true. The double coat on the Highland cattle breed provided the insulation needed for cold weather. This made it unnecessary to produce an over-abundance of back fat. The tenderness was noticeable to me immediately. In comparison to the many breeds of beef I have tasted through the years, the Highland beef is more tender and flavorful with a nice marbling. Admittedly you cannot expect a thousand pound hanging carcass. You won’t finish a steer in 18 months like some “super beef breeds”. My experience was it was well worth the wait for your own table. If you sell beef it commands a higher price. In addition, after culling a 15-year-old cow that produced 13 calves, she still gave us the leanest burger we have ever had.
Highland cattle are truly a unique breed and a bit of an acquired taste. They are easy to fall for at first sight. But, what about those horns? I have never been hurt by the horns of my Highlands. Niniel, at 16 years old, has a set of horns 54 inches across. You do have to consider this awesome weaponry when interacting with your stock. Their origin from the Highlands of Scotland instinctually requires the horns to fight off predators, dig through snow to forage, and as I have seen my own “Heiland Coos” do, scratch their own butt!
You do have to consider the types of feeders you use. If you use round bales, a horse-type hay feeder will work better than a cattle-type hay feeder. If you use a cattle-type feeder, you will need to remove some of the sections to accommodate the horns. If a trough feeder is your choice, you need to consider much more room than the width of one head of one animal. I always would approach my “fold” so they could see me coming. While working with them, I would have one hand on a horn so I knew where it was and one hand on the cattle comb they liked so much. It can get a little dangerous if everybody wants to be brushed at once.
Not being a true homesteader myself, I can only suggest that Highland cattle would make a good contribution to that lifestyle. Sometimes known as the “Hairy Cow,” it does afford some raw material for spinning and weaving. My wife Kim found in order to spin the fiber she needed to blend it with another fiber with more crimp, or twist to make it more workable. Their docile attitude also presents the opportunity for milking. The milk is considered very rich in flavor and fat content. Once upon on a time, these giants were part of the winter household, providing warmth and food to ancient Celts. I found vet bills to be quite low. Calving is inherently easy. I was amazed at how well they developed on forage from weeds and pine needles to the best of hay. Grain was used as a treat, and of course, for the time I would forget to close the gate and would need to get them home. Highland cattle are smart and athletic, but I never had an issue with a fence not holding them.
My “Heiland Coos” were by far the most memorable and entertaining of my cattle raising experiences. I would recommend them to both novice and experienced cattle enthusiasts alike. I’m sure you will enjoy making you own memories with the exceptional Highland cattle breed.
What experiences have you had with your favorite breed of cattle?
Originally published in Countryside March / April 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.