Highland cattle in Ireland today are still not a very popular breed. There are various reasons for this and the main one being over a long number of years there has been a push towards bigger continental type cattle. Breeds like Belgian blues, limousines, parthenais, Charolais, aubracs, etc. that have all become very popular.
There has been a drive to have cattle finished as young and as heavy as possible to try to meet the factories specs and age limits in order to try to increase the returns for the farmers. In order to do this it involves feeding large quantities of concentrates and cattle rations over the winter months.
The highland cattle on the other hand are a slow growing smaller breed of animal which would not reach factory weights as quickly as some other breeds. As one person reminded me one day the biggest part of them are their horns. I think the breed still has a lot going for it in this country though
My reasons for keeping highland cattle
One thing I have noticed after keeping them with a number of years is they are an extremely low maintenance breed of cattle. They calve themselves without any assistance. They will forage where other breeds won’t for example while some breeds would be roaring at the shed for silage the highlands would be up on a bank of earth munching on a tree.
Because of their ability to graze where other cattle won’t and their ability to stay warm outside in cold weather means they are cheaper to keep over the winter. They also don’t need much else besides grass and silage. Like all breeds of cattle they will love to get ration too and would probably be better to at least let them know what it tastes like to stop them becoming completely feral.
I would have to question however if in today s market it pays to feed lots of concentrates or rations to cattle. The cost of wintering cows here can quickly wipe out any profit to be made. Maybe I am missing something but these stars on cows and schemes for breeding better cows seems to me only suits the factories and not the farmer.
Surveys have shown here that without farm payments very few beef farms would have any profit for their work and indeed many would be making a loss. A good cow to me is not how big or good-looking she is, she doesn’t even need to win any beauty contests as long as she doesn’t cost me money and leaves me a calf every year I’m happy. In short, I want a cow that leaves a profit for me not for the factories.
For me the highland cows will do that once I don’t keep too many of them. (less is more) . By keeping the numbers at a low stocking rate particularly over the winter months the cost of keeping them is minimal. I still would make some silage but because they will do fine outside they only need to come in during very wet weather to prevent poaching of ground.
When they are inside they will eat less than larger breeds of cattle too and that means overall I would only need to make around half as much silage as I would if I was to keep some other breeds.
They are excellent mothers and are very protective of newborn calves and because there are not too many people breeding highland cattle Ireland female highlands are always in demand. Crossbreeds from highlands are nice cattle too and usually grow faster and bigger than purebred cattle.
Highlands are the oldest registered breed of cattle in the world their herd book describes two distinct types of Highland cattle in 1885. One was the West Highland, or Kyloe, originating and living in the outer herbides and lived in harsher conditions. These cattle tended to be smaller, to have black coats and, due to their more rugged environment, to have long hair. They cattle were named due to the practice of relocating them. The kyles are narrow straits of water, and the cattle were driven across them to get to the market.
The other type were mainland cattle and these were bigger and lived on better pastures and generally had more nutrients due to better quality grazing. Today due to crossbreeding the two types of highland cattle have merged into one and there is no longer any difference in the breed.
Because they were bred and developed in the highlands of Scotland which can be one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet particularly in winter when storms of rain hail and snow blow in from the north Atlantic they are probably the most weather ready breeds in the world. Highlands have also adapted to survive on poor quality forage and will eat moor grass bushes and shrubs like heather.
I have heard it said that their stomachs have adapted to extract more nutrients from poor quality forage than other breeds of cattle. This would make them a very suitable breed for a lot of poorer quality land in places like connemara or the west of Ireland.
Normally people have kept scotch or blackface mountain sheep in these areas but like the suckler herd the market returns from wool and smaller hill sheep is not what it once used to be. I must admit I know little enough about mountain sheep only what I was told when I was considering getting some.
That was fencing was expensive and they were a good way to get to know the neighbors in that they could be in your neighbors land more often than they are in your own particularly when they are new and just been introduced to the area.
I decided then to stick with cattle as I felt I know more about them and for me highlands seemed to suit the high ground and mountain type ground that I wanted to graze. The lower fields I use for making silage and contract rearing of cows over the summer and Autumn months.
About the breed
People often think of highlands of having a ginger or red coat of hair as most are that color but they can come in a wide range of colors including red, ginger, black, dun, yellow, white, grey, or tan.
Highland cattle have a double coat of hair, the outer oily coat has longer hair than any other breed of cattle and acts like a wind breaker stopping cold wind and rain. They also have a downy undercoat to keep them insulated against the cold and snow.
I have often observed my own out grazing in the middle of a field on the hill while other breeds are huddled at the ditch with their backs to the rain. Wind rain and cold weather doesn’t seem to bother them as long as they have some food to forage. The meat from highland cattle is lean and well marbled which is up to 38% lower in fat and 4% cholesterol than other breeds because with their thick woolly coats they don’t need as much fat to keep themselves warm.
Female highlands grow to around 500kg and males around 800kgs. Highlands have very distinctive horns which grow in different directions in males and females. The male horns grow out and turn down or forwards and the female horns grow out and turn upwards.
Highland cattle are said to use their long horns to dig out buried vegetation in the snow although I thing most farmers including myself can find them a bit awkward to deal with. The horns can grow over 2 feet and that’s around 4 or 5 foot wide from the tip of one horn to the other. For that reason some don’t like going through the cattle crush or tight spaces.
The vet would deserve a medal for the annual tb test and you can’t just put them in a trailer and bring them to the mart either when you want either unless you remove the horns first. Although highlands are a docile breed their horns are formidable weapons and they know how to use them against other cattle to assume their dominant position in the herd. that’s another thing a group of highland cattle is called a fold and not a herd like other cattle breeds.
Watch out for the horns
One other example I can give about their horns being a bit awkward is shortly after getting into highlands I went out into the field and in order to entice them to follow me along I brought a bucket of beef nuts with me. within 20 seconds I found myself surrounded by a bunch of excited hungry horny cattle trying to all get into the bucket and batter me to death with their horns in the process.
Realizing my mistake I proceeded to throw the bucket over my shoulder and run out of the field twisting my ankle in the process. Although it wasn’t that serious and the cattle were more playful dancing and bucking around me it was still intimidating enough for me to change tactics and bring an empty bag and stand outside the gap of the field in the future.
Of course, they could always be dehorned as young calves but in my view that does spoil one of their distinctive features which is one of the reasons people buy them as they look so different than any other breed of cattle out there.
I would say dealing with their long horns is the main downfall of why the breed are not more popular than they are, the smaller carcass weight and weak demand for bulls and slower growth rates are also factors. The highland breed also has a lot going for it like very little health problems ease of calving, grazing ability and they also tend to live and last longer than other breeds of cattle.
Highlands have good longevity and low replacement costs and can produce calves for up to 18 years. Calves are born small at around 30kgs with a woolly coat of hair that grows longer with age. They are on their feet and suckling very quickly and the highland cows milk is also rich and very high in butterfat which ensures that calves are sufficiently nourished in cold weather from an early age.
Highlands are very protective of newborn calves in my opinion even more so than other cattle. I tend to give them a wide berth for the first few days if I can and just let them get on with bonding. As the calf gets older the mothers relax a bit and that makes it a bit easier to steal the calf away for tagging etc.
Overall I would say the highland breed has some advantages and disadvantages but definitely has a place and in my opinion would be particularly suited to the harsh wind and rain along the western seaboard of Ireland. There is always demand for heifers from people who either want to get into breeding highland or who just want to keep a few novelty cattle. While bulls can be in less demand they can still fetch good prices as strong calves or at the factory when fully matured.
While I can’t see too many keeping highland cattle in Ireland in huge numbers I think they certainly have their uses in smaller herds of (folds) as they are known as in Scotland.
They make an ideal breed for grazing mountain or peat land as they will eat some plants that other cattle would avoid like brambles briars and furze bushes etc. but like any grazing animals will go for rich green nutritious grass first when its available. Because they are kept and cheap to keep over winter they could also suit many part-time farmers here.
That basically sums up how I have found the highland breed over the last number of years but if you want to know anything else about them you can get in touch with me or ask a question in the comment section below. You can also visit my highland cattle page here
A most enjoyable read thank you. I really love them. I’m Wexford. Do you know where I can buy two calves please. Kind regards Eithne
Hi Eithne I don’t have any at the moment only a bull calf. heifers are very popular and scarce enough in Ireland. I will let you know if I have any for sale next spring but if you keep an eye on donedeal.ie they might come up from time to time.
We would love to get one to keep as a pet/long term resident. Where would we get a calf? Thanks.
Hi Antoinette I don’t have any calves at the moment but could let you know when I have one for sale I usually take bull calves to the local mart if a bull would suit. I have a waiting list for heifers as they seem to be popular with people
Hi there, can you keep me in mind too please. I’d love to buys couple of heifer calfs or cow with heifer calf at foot. Thank you
I will of course but I only keep small numbers around 10 purebreed cows and 50% of calves will be bulls. I have some crossbreed to from time to time but most want purebreed highlands
Hi DJ any calves for sale this year
I am selling a bull calf tomorrow at gortatlea mart https://www.livestock-live.com/OnlineAuction-M262 you could bid online if interested. I will have some more over the next few weeks I would think. It is a strange year with the 5km restrictions on travel so I sold a few at the local mart while I am off work.
just read your article on highlands. My grandson loves them and would love to get a heifer calf. I have a small farm with 8 sucklers so would have room. We live in Kerry and you said you got some of yours from Killorglin. I wonder do they still breed them or where else could we get some
I purchased some of mine from a lady called lisa o sullivan outside killorglin but I am not sure if she still breeds them https://www.thatsfarming.com/news/farmer-focus-killrowan-farm
I dont have a phone number sorry. The others came from a farm in dunmanway in cork I think his name was micheal godstine probably spelt wrong its a german name. If you look at the breeders section of the highland cattle society website you might find some more in Ireland but they are rear enough. I will let you know when I have some for sale again but I dont have any purebreed ones for sale at the moment
We are also looking for a heifer for next season starting in February. Can you let me know if you have any available between now and then? Thanks Tracy.
will do tracy
do you know if it is possible to get highland AI? I have a couple of Hereford heifers and was thinking of AI’ing them next year. Great write up.
Thanks john I presume you are based in Ireland in which case https://www.progressivegenetics.ie/Store/Detail/ANGUS-MOR-OF-GLENGOYNE have 2 bulls on there catalogue. When I ordered AI straws I had it sent to a local AI technician and he stored it in his flask until I needed it.
If you are based in the UK https://www.uksiresdirect.com/en/shop/products/angus-mor-of-glengoyne have some.
That’s great info. Indeed I’m Kerry based. Thanks much DJ!
Thanks john its always great to get feedback. Sometimes I wonder if there is any interest in topics I write about so I really appreciate anyone taking the time to leave feedback positive or negative but positive like yours is even better !
This is the most informative first-hand knowledge piece written on the Highland cattle breed that I have come across. Thank you very much for this.
When you said “can’t just load them into a trailer and bring them to the mart” were you just talking about the impracticality of transporting them or did you mean that the marts won’t accept them for selling if they horned?
Transporting them is not a problem but marts might not take horned cattle as they need to be penned away from other animals for safety but there is very good demand for highlands outside of the marts as you could see from other comments. handling can be slightly inconvenient with the with of their horns walking through cattle crush etc. but they are a docile breed so that helps with handling too.
Hi DJ the information you have is excellent. I’m very interested in buying a few highland cows the miniature ones are also appealing. Do you have any for sale I’m not looking for a bull or where I can purchase them. I’m based in Co Waterford. Thank you in advance
Thanks I don’t have any for sale as I only keep a small number at the moment around 8 and I contract rear friesian cattle over the summer. I get a good few enquires about them. I would say your best chance is keep an eye on done deal as there was one or two herds around cork. most only keep a small hand full of animals as they are not really a commercial beef breed
Do you have any other link for straws in Ireland as the one on the comments above isn’t opening. Thanks Todd
hello looking to start keeping highland cattle could anyone tell me were I can get them at in Ireland thanks kieran Rogers
There are not that many herds in Ireland but keep an eye on done deal or farmers journal classified ads toplink.ie
I dont keep to many so only have some bull calves at times for the moment. I am looking out for a highland bull at the moment myself as I need to bring in some new blood.
Very interesting read and extremely honest . I’ve loved these bred of cow for years. I first noticed them on BBC countryfile programme on Sunday evenings where a farmer named Adam Henshall has them on his farm in the cotswolds along with different types of sheep. Im not from a farming background but its my dream to rent some land and buy these breed of cow . Thank you for ur honesty and knowledge.
They are a nice breed of cow. The one thing that I have learned since keeping them is although the can survive on their own for most of the year calves born outside still need human contact to prevent them from becoming too feral. The quite cows will always be tame but calves also need human contact so they will become tame too. I hope you get your farm and highland cows some day if you have a dream I always say follow it.
Really interesting read. I am planning to plant a 3 acre wildflower meadow. I have seen Highland cattle used as part of a meadow management regime. I hope to use some of them in our project.
I think they are ideal for any type of conservation grazing as they will eat pretty much anything. They are browsers as well as grazers
Do you know if any other website for the highland straw the the one above are all sold out
I am not sure I know the highland Society used to sell AI to Ireland at one stage but that might not be the cheapest option https://www.highlandcattlesociety.com/ai-bulls
Other than that you could try Munster AI to see if they have any in stock they seem to have one on there web page under HI https://www.munsterbovine.ie/Store/Beef-Sires/Rare-Breeds
Another UK website here https://www.uksiresdirect.com/en/shop/products/angus-mor-of-glengoyne