The Scottish Highland cattle breed originates from the Gaelic region of Scotland known as the Highlands. This mountainous region was inhabited as early as the 14th century by the Scottish settlers who wanted to move out of the “crowded” lowlands area. The primary challenge for these settlers was to survive in the harsh climate. The Scotts, being a resilient and determined clan, found ways to make life in the mountains comfortable.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Scottish Highland cattle breed is the product of a dire necessity. The homesteads in the mountain regions were relatively small, mostly restricted by the geography. The families were unable to feed or sustain a large herd of cattle. They found themselves looking for a cattle breed that would be able to survive the harsh winters, provide calcium & protein rich milk, and offer tasty lean meat. Through centuries of selective breeding the Scottish Highland (or Highlander) cattle breed was developed. These cows continue to meet all the criteria for which they were originally bred.
Most of the Highland mountain farmers didn’t have the means or space to build barns and shelters for their cows. They would bring their cow(s) into the house during the winter to generate heat for the family and to keep the cow safe from predators or thieves. Of course, it was crucial that their cattle had docile and friendly personalities with these living arrangements. We are able to enjoy the benefits of those years of selective breeding. The Highland cattle on Cyrus Ridge Farm are selected, bred, and trained to be friendly and docile with their owners.
The most recognized trait of a Scottish Highland cow is the long shaggy fringe of hair covering the face and eyes. The hair, known as the “dossen”, serves as a shield for wind, rain, sleet, and snow. It also gives the cows summer protection against flies in their eyes and face. The hair tends to thin during the warm months but will become thick and long during the colder months.
The long-curled horns of a Highland cow are beautiful and intimidating at the same time. These horns are as much a necessity to the cow as your arm is to you. These majestic animals are able to use their horns with almost surgeon-like precision. They can move brush aside for foraging, scratch a pesky itch on their back, and protect thier young. In addition, the horns are very vascular. The blood flowing through the horns is cooled, much like a radiator in a car, before circulating through the body. In the warmer months, the horns are critical for the health of the cow. The rumen (stomach) of a cow is approximately 1 degree warmer than the cow’s body temperature. The temperature regulating function of the horns allows the cow’s digestive system to operate at its highest efficiency. A bull’s horns are typically curved forward and thick, while a cow’s horns will curve up and spread wider with age. The horn spread on a mature cow is usually between 36” and 48”.
Micro & Miniature Highlands
Miniature Highland cattle have been developed through decades of continued selective breeding. A mini Highland requires far less feed and land to thrive then their full-size counterparts. The sweet personality, small size, and all the other traits of the Highland cattle make an exceptional package for farmstead / homestead self-sustaining families. A micro or miniature Highland can easily be raised on a ½ acre pasture or smaller if you supplement with grain. Highlands do best with friends and will be happy with another bovine breed, goat, sheep, chickens, and dogs. Horses and donkeys will likely not be a good match, since the bovine and equine families both have an instinctual hierarchy system. These instincts could create conflict leading to serious injuries or death.
Hierarchy / Family System
Highland cattle have a hierarchy system within the herd or fold. Each group of cattle that live together will have a “pecking order” or order of dominance. While age may play a role, it is typically established by the biggest and strongest cow. The cows will go head to head, fighting for position, to establish who is the strongest. The cows rarely try to hurt the other cows, rather they carefully place their foreheads together and try to push the other one backwards. The cow at the top of the hierarchy will have the first access to water, food, and shelter. She (or he) will allow the others to enjoy the resources as soon as she has been satisfied. The calves of the top cows will automatically receive a higher position due to their mother’s status. Likewise, the cows who fall lower in the system will likely hide their calves longer to protect them from getting pushed around by the bigger cows. At Cyrus Ridge Farm, we provide a safe maternity pasture for the pregnant and newly calved cows to enjoy plenty of food, water, and shelter. Just as the cows have a hierarchy system, they also have a family system. The cows will join with 1 or 2 cows of similar social status. These smaller pairs or groups will be nearly inseparable. The calves of these family groups will become close friends as well. They will mourn the loss of a family member for days or weeks.
Cyrus Ridge Farm was designed with the health and sustainability of the cattle and the land in mind. The science behind rotational grazing is deep and fascinating. A general overview is that the cattle tend to first eat the growth that best fits their needs. The grazing of these grasses and growth releases a chemical signal to the root system of that plant to release stored sugar and nutrients to the surrounding soil. If the cattle are moved from the area it allows the grass or growth to recover and once again be grazed. Each soil type, time of year, and environment will determine the times needed for recovery and regrowth. The cow’s hooves slightly penetrate the topsoil allowing the manure (3-2-1 NPK fertilizer) and urine (high nitrogen fertilizer) to be absorbed by the root system of a pasture. The cows at Cyrus Ridge Farm are rotated through a series of 6 pastures, each ranging in size from 5-10 acres. The occupied pasture is closely monitored to optimize the rotation to the next pasture. In the fast-growing season of spring and early summer, the cattle will not be able to eat all of the grass growth. The excess grass is cut, dried, and baled for use during the winter months.