Top 5 Hidden (And Not So Hidden!) Disadvantages Of Highland Cattle

The Highland cattle bear the same rugged resemblance to the harsh and unforgiving Scottish countryside from where they came. 

Very recognizable with long hair and trendy fringe, they’re a true icon of the cattle world. 

Years of living on mountainous lands have given them a name for being both hardy and resilient. Dating back to the 6th century, they had quite some time to adapt to this land. 

However, in this article, we’ll discuss some of the main disadvantages of this furry beast and why it might have other uses than typical farming.

Let’s dive right in.

Disadvantages Of Highland Cattle

Wellbeing & health

Although known for their excellent genetics to fight against disease, these cattle aren’t entirely infallible. 

Purebreds seem to do well, but certain bloodlines can have health issues and temperament differences. 

One issue that can arise is overgrown hooves. This issue has been especially noted in Australian breeds. Some are known to need hoove trimming every year or two to avoid scissor toes, corkscrew toes, or cracking.

They seem to have fewer problems if left to grow naturally, but commodity-bred cattle (faster growth) can suffer from breakdowns in their udders and legs. 

Ticks and lice can find a home in the thick layering of the highland, especially in the hot weather. Which is no surprise seeing how much real estate there is in those furry coats.

Management & temperment

Perhaps because these cattle have had a long lineage of living freely on open mountains, the Highland isn’t too fond of being cooped up in confined spaces.

Farmers growing the Highland for beef production will prefer to farm them on accessible grassland, but it’s known that the Highland thrives on a more diverse diet and wild habitat.

They evolved in wild areas with trees, shrubs, bushes, and varied grasses. Unfortunately, most farmers aren’t willing to chase them around wild mountain areas and prefer to keep them on flat plain fields they aren’t best adapted to.

In general, their temperament is docile and cooperative. But like most cattle, they need a consistent, friendly human touch to keep them on friendly terms. Therefore, farmers are encouraged to see them regularly rather than the fire and forget approach to farming.

Cunning creatures, Highlands are no stranger to the Houdini effect of breaking out of enclosures. 

The thick layer of hair acts as an insulator to electric fences, which if just a single wire, can be waltzed over by them. It’s recommended to use a more robust fencing system with barbed wire. Post and rail are best, but it’s 3-4 times as expensive as wire fencing.

Once pregnant, approach female cows with caution. It is often reported that the mother and other cows will defend newborn calves. Maternal instincts kick in for the herd.

Low milk production

When these cattle were the lifeblood of small rural communities of Scotland, whatever milk they produced was undoubtedly welcomed and enough for the people to live off.

But in today’s highly Capitalistic world, with tight profit margins, Highland’s low milk production just doesn’t cut the mustard. 

The other difference with their milk production is it has a higher butterfat content than most commercially produced milk at 10%. It’s more of an acquired taste than what the market is used to.

Marketability and production of meat

Highland meat is considerably leaner than you’d typically find in the supermarket, as per a study by the Scottish Agricultural College. 

For a typical beef Angus sirloin steak, you get 22.8g of fat per 100g. With a Highland sirloin steak, it’s 7.8g of fat per 100g. 

Some argue that its low-fat content is of higher quality for the cholesterol-conscious types. But meat sellers argue that you must find specialty markets for it as it’s not the norm. So you might get a good price for it but finding buyers is another story.

Another disadvantage of the HIghland is that it has a slower growth rate. The Highland heifer will usually give birth to their first calf at three years old. It’s not uncommon for other commercial breeds to birth at two. This fact sets them behind in the commercial meat game. 

Lastly, the HIghland is smaller in stature than their main competitors like the Hereford or Angus and is slower to finish. So, this further brings down their production value.

Hair and horn (not so hidden) issues

There are reasons why Highlands are also used as show cattle; they’re undeniably magnificent with their distinguishable horns and thick coats. But those same attributes don’t come without a cost.

If highland cattle are kept in wet mountainous conditions (which they’re suited to), their hair at 13” long is prone to getting muddy and matted. This isn’t a great look when trying to present the best version of your herd at the sale barn. Therefore, extra maintenance is needed to prep them for sale.

In the Handbook Of Highland Cattle, it’s recommended farmers should keep an eye out for newborn calves not being able to drink from their mother’s teat as sometimes they such on the hair instead.

Their long hair can cause a significant rise in body temperature shown by a study compared to more heat-resistant animals. In addition, these cattle aren’t suited to sweltering temperatures due to a chance of heat stroke.

The horns pose an obvious threat at 3-4 ft wide. Although not known for their aggressive nature, spiky horns are still not to be taken lightly. Farmers should approach cautiously, especially as their dossan (fringe hair) can cover their eyes. 

Many farmers report having difficulty selling such animals at the sale barn because of the horns and the hair, as it’s so much hassle to deal with compared to commercial cattle. 

Final Thoughts

Having looked at some of the common problems the Highland faces, such as the marketability of the meat and low production of milk, one can wonder why they’d be chosen as the primary herd for a beef or dairy farmer.

With further challenges arising with the long hair and horns, it seems more plausible to go for more commercial cattle as a viable profit source with less maintenance hassle.

Splendid to look at, there’s a reason that 93% of registered highland cattle in the United States are not owned by serious farmers but are kept as more pet herds of 10 or less.