The Scottish highland breed of cattle is easily recognized by their “bangs,” or fringe, that hangs across their faces and over their eyes.
Originating in the highlands and west coastal islands of Scotland, the breed was toughened by the severe climate and North Atlantic winds.
Highland cattle have a double coat of hair — a downy undercoat and a longer overcoat, which can be 13 inches long and well-oiled to shed rain and snow. The highland can tolerate exposure to the elements, but if raised in a hot climate, it sheds the heavy hair coat and grows it back when cold weather returns.
Highlands can be black, brindled, red, yellow or dun.
The breed first came to the U.S. in the early 1920s, with the earliest documented importation to ranches in Wyoming and South Dakota.
Collin Demuth, of York, Nebraska, has been raising the animals since his dad brought home six of them in 1987. At one time, when he and his two brothers and sister were youngsters, the family had 125 head. Now, because he and his wife Natalie each have jobs, they have cut back to 15 head.
He raises breeding stock and harvests from three to five steers a year, marketing them to close friends and family.
Demuth finishes them out on corn, even though they are excellent foragers. Highland cattle are often used to clean up poor quality pasture.
They are slow gainers. It takes between 28 to 30 months for Demuth to raise and finish a steer. But they are efficient feeders, he said, and gain well either on grain or grass.
“As a breed, they forage well, and convert very well. They marble well on forage,” he said.
They require less forage and fewer acres than conventional breeds.
Their meat is also more tender. Demuth attributes that, in part, to the longer time it takes for them to reach maturity.
An average hanging carcass weight for a purebred or a full-blood highland is between 550 to 750 pounds, he said. He crosses his highlands with Angus and shorthorns and usually has a carcass weight from 600 to 800 pounds.
The heavy coat the highland has in the winter also cuts down on the need for backfat as insulation. Highland cattle have one-quarter inch of backfat, or less, Demuth said, and that means less waste. The average highland carcass dresses out to 65 or 70% while a mainstream breed might be 55 to 60%.
The breed also has good maternal instinct. Highlands have been known to mother lambs who are in the same pen, and Demuth said if cows hear a calf bawl, “the whole group’s ears perk up and they are wondering what’s going on.”
Their mothering traits are “exceptional,” he said: “If I go out and tag a calf, I have to be careful. It’s not just that calf’s mother, it’s all of them (who are protective).”
Highlands are known for their longevity as well. Demuth follows studies done in Scotland. Researchers (and the old-timers) claim that waiting to breed a highland heifer until she’s 2 years old will add more years of breeding at the end of her life.
“Waiting a year on the front end in turn lets those cows produce an additional three to five calves at the end,” Demuth said.
He has five cows calving this year that are anywhere from 12 to 15 years old.
The breed does have some drawbacks, he said, mostly with marketability. Sale barns and packers don’t want to deal with the long hair and the horns. His local slaughterhouse refused to harvest one of his highlands one year because it had been exceptionally muddy and its hair was packed with mud.
About 93% of the registered highland cattle in the U.S. are owned by hobbyists, who have 10 or fewer head. That can sometimes lead to another disadvantage, Demuth said. People get the idea that because the breed is hardy, resilient and low-input, they are easy to raise. But Demuth has seen that can lead people to neglect cattle nutrition.
“I’ve seen a lot of cattle that are malnourished or neglected. Some people who get into raising them don’t know how to,” he said.
Those who are able to market their animals in their local communities or through farmers markets can do well, he said. It might take some sampling and some time and work, but there is a market for lean cattle whose meat is tender and low fat.
“I know people around the country, who, once they’ve given away a package of steaks or hamburger, their customers don’t ask the price. They ask, when can I get more beef?” Demuth said.
People around the country make a good living slaughtering 50-60 head a year, he said. Demuth sells his highland meat at 15-20% higher than the USDA hanging rail price.
“I’ve never had anybody balk at the price,” he said.
One customer, a rancher from Dunning, Nebraska has bought Demuth’s highland bulls for 10 years. He crosses them with red Angus, and his calves wean 50 to 60 pounds heavier. They thrive in the Sandhills on minimum care, Demuth said.
Behind the bangs, the breed is a wonderful asset.
“We got laughed at as a breed when we were kids,” Demuth remembered. “People just hadn’t seen (highlands). They’re starting to get recognized.”