Highland Cattle in Canada
Highland cattle thrive in Alberta
Printed here by kind permission of The Alberta Beef Magazine
Most cattle producers have seen pictures of Highland cattle - usually under some pretty tough and rugged conditions. These mystical and picturesque cattle have a reputation for hardiness that they came by naturally - through their many centuries of development under harsh circumstances in the wilds of Scotland. That characteristic has also made Highland cattle thrifty low-cost beef producers in areas where other breeds would barely survive.
Highland Cattle originated in the Highlands and west coastal islands of Scotland, areas severe in climate and lashed by North Atlantic gales. Throughout the long recorded history of Highlands, breeders have taken great care to retain the original characteristics of these rugged cattle.
Originally, the breed was divided into two classes, the West Highlands or Kyloe, and the Highlander. The Kyloes, raised on the western islands of Scotland, tended to be of a smaller size and had a higher percentage of black and brindled cattle than the mainland Highlanders.
The size difference was probably due more to the severe climate and limited rations that the island cattle were subjected to than to any genetic variation between the classes. Today all members of the breed are called Highland.
Highland Cattle were first imported into Canada from Scotland in the 1880s: one bull by Donald A. Smith (Lord Strathcona), of Winnipeg, and one bull by Robert Campbell, of Strathclair, Manitoba, who later also imported five females. History has also recorded the presence of Highland Cattle in Nova Scotia during these early years.
The late 1920s began the era significant to present day Canadian breeders, when importations were made from Scotland by breeders in Saskatchewan and Ontario. Since that time there have been many more importations, some of which were on a much larger scale of between 10-40 animals. In the early 1950's importing and exporting of Highland Cattle started between Canada and the United States.
The Canadian Highland Cattle Society was formally incorporated in October 1964. From that time to the present, the Society has employed the services of Canadian Livestock Records Corporation to verify and record the pedigrees of all registered Canadian Highland Cattle.
All Highlands registered in the Canadian Herd Book must be purebred. By not allowing the addition of other breeds to the Canadian Highland gene pool, the Canadian Highland Cattle Society maintains the purity of the race. Canadian cattle have always had an excellent health record. This factor, along with the present worldwide demand for Highland cattle, has led to a number of exports of Canadian Highlands and Highland embryos to countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany and even Scotland.
What about Highland cattle in Alberta? Well they thrive in this province just like anywhere else. In Alberta there are 21 breeders of registered purebred Highland cattle. According to Lesley Jackson a Highland breeder near Calmar there are more herds in the province that are not registered. As yet there is no specific Highland cattle show or sale in Alberta. Lesley notes, "The main Highland cattle show is at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto." She adds, "All of our sales in Alberta are by means of private treaty."
New Highland stock tends to be brought in from Ontario, BC and Quebec. Lesley adds, "Highland cattle are mainly located in the east, there are also many herds throughout the USA."
Highland cattle semen and embryos have been brought into Canada in the past but the trade has been interrupted by BSE outbreaks in the UK and Canada. Lesley notes, "We have had a few breeders from Canada shipping embryos to Australia in the past." Interest in the breed seems to have increased recently, Lesley notes, "I thought interest would drop off with the BSE crisis but instead it seems to have increased." Diane Turner, a Highland cattle breeder near Mayerthorpe, notes that the ability of the cattle to thrive under harsh conditions is what convinced them to have Highlands. She adds, "Our pastures are really rough, the Highlands browse a lot and clear back the willows."
Another characteristic of Highland cattle that Diane appreciates is their vitality, she notes, "We don't have to pull calves and their mortality rate is very low, also we've had cows that calved at 15 years old." This is not uncommon in Highlands, and some Alberta breeders have even had healthy calves out of 20-year old cows. This is probably as a result of generations of natural selection.
One of the unique characteristics of Highland cattle, besides their ruggedness, is Highland beef. In the UK the Highland breeders association has been actively promoting Highland beef with a unique identifying label. Lesley notes that Highland beef flavour is indeed a strong selling point; it's also quite lean due to their thick hair coat. She added, "My beef customers return because of the flavour of the meat." Retail sales are a big part of Diane Turner's Highland cattle operation. She notes, "Usually if we can get somebody to try Highland beef we have them as a repeat customer." She adds, "We don't feed grain, our cattle are naturally finished on grass." Anyone who has Highland cattle knows about the breed characteristics that have served this breed well. Much like the Highland cattle in ancient Scotland, Canadian Highlands are raised in vastly different environmental conditions. The wide range seen in the size of cattle within the breed is due mainly to this effect. Also, there is a common misconception that Highland cattle will grow on thin air. Highland breeders do not have to use special feeds or growth hormones, however even the hardiest of animals needs access to food and water. The following average weights are for cattle that have not had their growth affected by severe climate or restricted diet:
* Mature bulls weigh 1,800 pounds (800 kilograms) in breeding condition.
* Mature cows weigh 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) in breeding condition.
* Steers will finish at about 1,000 (450 kilograms). This weight can be attained with heavy feeding as a long yearling but most breeders prefer to grow their steers on pasture and finish them at two years.
Highlands have a double coat of hair - a downy undercoat and a long outer coat which may reach 13 inches, and which is well-oiled to shed rain and snow. With the double coat of hair and thick hide, the Highland has been adapted by nature to withstand great exposure. Highlands shed the downy undercoat when exposed to warmer weather, but most of the long outer coat remains to offer some protection from rain and insects. The thick undercoat readily grows back with the return of cold weather. Cattle colour includes shades of red, which is the predominant, to brindle, dun, yellow and black.
The Highland is unusually healthy and hardy. It will survive on roughage and poor grazing, including brush if necessary, under climatic conditions where most of our popular breeds would suffer. Highlands are noted for their browsing ability and therefore are well suited to farmsteads where there is an excess of poor pasture and rough land. The Highland's proven ability to produce top quality meat without the addition of expensive high quality feeds makes this breed the perfect choice for those people who wish to produce beef with natural inputs.
The mothering instinct is highly developed in the Highland cow. Abandoned calves, for even first-calf heifers, are rare. This strong protective inclination of the cow minimizes predator losses that can even extend to sheep that are pastured in the same field. The Highland calf is exceptionally hardy and grows rapidly up to weaning. The Highland cow has a long productive life and many herds' average 12 calves from each cow.
This greatly reduces their replacement cost, a most important factor these days. A Highland-Hereford cow can barely see over the back of her growthy Highland-sired calf. In Scotland, Highlands have traditionally been crossed with the Whitebred Shorthorn. The crossbred females were retained as "hill cattle" and bred to either Hereford or Angus bulls, but this choice has now widened to include the continental breeds.
The Highland cross female is of moderate size, hardy with a long productive life and, when mated to a fast growing sire, produces a very saleable calf while keeping cow maintenance costs to a minimum. At the Ag Canada range research station near Manyberries, Alberta, experiments performed by John E. Lawson, of the Lethbridge Research Station, it was demonstrated that Highlands cross well with Hereford. First-cross steer calves exceeded the Hereford in growth rate and equalled them in carcass characteristics.
First-cross Highland-Hereford cows were hardy, excellent mothers, and from yearlings up had high conception rates. They were among the best of all breeds and crosses produced at Manyberries, weaning a high percentage calf crop (number of calves weaned per cows exposed to bull). It was experienced at Manyberries that when they got a Highland cow bred, they were almost sure to get a weaned calf from her.
With the Highland's long history as a pure breed there is little doubt that it has been used, over time, to add an injection of hardiness to other breeds. This influence has been documented as far away as the mountains of central France where Highlands were crossed with the native Salers breed.
The most recent use of Highlands is with the Luing cattle, developed by the Cadzow Brothers of Scotland. The breed contains 5/8 shorthorn and 3/8 Highland blood. Luing is the first new British breed developed in over 100 years.
Highland meat is fine grained and well marbled. Considering the small number of Highland cattle that have entered carcass competitions, the results are impressive. For example, the Stroh family of Colorado have won Grand Champion or Reserve Grand Champion, in at least one category of the "Hanging Beef Carcass" contest at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, for 22 out of the 25 years they entered. Highlands and their crosses have the ability to produce a quality meat product without the excessive external fat of other breeds. Producers who wish to utilize rough land pastures to produce the lean, healthy beef that is presently in such high demand by consumers, should breed Highlands.
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