Often seen as a hobby breed, more breeders across the country are demonstrating Highland cattle’s ability to not only breed cross-bred replacements which boast hybrid vigour and hardiness, but quality beef carcases.
Katrina Macarthur reports...
Aberdeenshire farmers Jim and Sheila Fraser, together with their daughters, Mary and Alison, have been finishing pure Highland calves, which are sold to Dovecote Park’s Highland scheme for 10 years.
The scheme is a specialist range of beef which is available specifically for the Christmas season at Waitrose.
This has become the family’s main market for pure Highland beef and they now fatten between 80 and 100 calves each year at 28 to 40 months of age.
They are sold at an average weight of 242kg deadweight and regularly peak at 390p/kg.
The Fraser family has been farming at the 80-hectare (200-acre) unit, East Tilbouries, near Maryculter, Aberdeen, since 1965, and they rent a further 20ha (50 acres) at their original unit, Turfcraig, and another 80ha (200 acres) annually.
Highland cattle have been bred pure since 1992, when the Tilbouries fold was established, although Mr Fraser’s late father, John, had been buying pure Highland cattle from the west coast as far back as the late 1960s to cross with the Hereford and then the Simmental.
Mr Fraser says: “Of all breeds that I have on the farm, Highlanders are my passion. You cannot beat the breed for its hardiness and low maintenance characteristics, and it has the ability to be crossed with any other beef breed, producing first cross Highlanders which are milky, good mothers and can still be out-wintered all-year-round.
“Highland cows have a good nature and last long. Our oldest cow to date was 21 years of age.”
At present, the 115-cow herd includes 77 pedigree Highlanders and 26 pedigree Simmentals, while the remainder are either Highland cross Shorthorns or Highland cross Simmentals.
Original Highland stock bulls used on the fold were Ballach Gael of Breachacha and Alasdair Ruadh 2 of Douneside, while Dalinlongart Jamie Dubh, bought in 1997 as an 18-month-old bull at Caledonian Marts, Stirling, is the sire of some of the oldest home-bred cows found in the herd today.
The pedigree Simmental herd was founded in the 1980s, with the purchase of an in-calf Simmental heifer at Oban and the private purchase of a cow and calf outfit, Plurenden Drollete 7 and her polled heifer calf, Watergate Mary, from a herd on the Black Isle.
The last three Simmental stock bulls have been bought privately from the Heathbrow herd, Hertfordshire.
In more recent years, the family has introduced pedigree Beef Shorthorns to the farm, with the hope of using their own bulls for crossing.
There are currently three heifers in the herd, including two homebred twin heifers which have both calved heifer calves and one female purchased at Stirling Bull Sales, last year.
The family’s Beef Shorthorn bull, Fordie Harrison, bred by Fiona Davidson, was shown successfully last year by freelance stockman, Nick Robertson, and the Frasers hope to show a heifer at the local showsthis year.
At the society’s spring show and sale in February 2016, the Tilbouries team sold its first bull at Oban for 9,000gns, to the Cladich fold after it stood reserve champion in the pre-sale show.
This was Campbell of Tilbouries, a son of Campbell 1 of Tordarroch, out of Ciara Dubh of Lismore, which was ably shown by Maureen MacArthur and John Ashton of Allanfearn Highlanders.
Other home-bred bulls have been sold privately and the Frasers hire out bulls to other folds.
While pure Highland cows are out-wintered all-year-round and fed a mix of home-grown and bought-in silage, Simmentals and cross cows are brought inside from the end of November through to May and receive a silage and straw ration.
Mr Fraser says that cows used to be fed draff, but with a growing number of anaerobic digestors , the animal feed is becoming almost impossible to source.
Pure Highland calves which are born in April are weaned from their mothers inside in the following January/February, before heading back outside in May.
It is only in the last two months, before going to Dovecote Park, that the cattle are brought inside, with heifers picked out as replacements or for finishing at 20 months of age.
“Calves are finished on homegrown silage, straw and a barley beef blend, while the smaller calves receive a different blend,” Mr Fraser says.
“Most calves are home-bred, but we do buy-in steer calves in December from the Achnacloich and Applecross folds.
“The calves go away to Dovecote Park at an average age of 36 months and must be sired by a pedigree Highland bull and be farm-assured.
“They travel south to North Yorkshire with haulage firm Thomson of Sauchen.
“The facilities are fantastic at Dovecote Park. It is a very modern set-up and they have very strict rules on animal welfare.”
Cross calves are weaned in January and fed a silage and straw mix, before being sold privately as yearlings or through the store ring at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre.
In the last few years, pure Simmental heifers which are not kept on for breeding at East Tilbouries, have been sold privately to returning buyers.
Each year, 15 pure Highland heifers are served at three years of age, while cross heifers are served at two years of age to the Simmental.
Most cross cows are then served to the Beef Shorthorn to introduce hybrid vigour, as are a small selection of pure Simmental heifers.
“We are fairly strict when it comes to culling cows and we focus strongly on temperament, udder confirmation and condition of feet,” says Mr Fraser.
“Fortunately, Highland cattle are good-natured animals, so we do not often have to cull for bad temperament.”
Although the Frasers have only ventured to Oban once with cattle, it is the local shows which keep them busy throughout summer.
The family has been exhibiting at local shows since 2010 and has scooped a number of championship wins in the Highland cattle section.
“Like all breeds, improvements need to be made and one which I believe should be made a stipulation for Highland cattle is a bull assessment on all bulls forward for sale,” says Mr Fraser.
“We are one of the very few societies which do not do this and, as a result, there are too many bad bulls being put forward at society sales. Not only is this incorrect and can lead to further problems down the line for breeders, but it also gives the society a bad advert when so many bulls are being unsold.”
In the meantime, calving has got off to a good start at East Tilbouries with the family’s show cow, Anna 2 of Southmuir, having just recently calved twins of both sex.
The Frasers are also looking forward to being host of this year’s North of Scotland Highland Cattle Club show in June, welcoming fellow breeders from near and far.