'European hobbyists’ love affair with ornamental Highland cattle showed no sign of abating at Oban' as reported in some of press after the 121st October sale of pedigree Highland cattle.

One commercially orientated farmer selling older heifers at the sale referred to them as 'fluffy' animals. The breed is perceived by most as a hobby and show breed, and one perceptive German breeder commented it is now 'one enthusiastic breeder breeding for another enthusiastic breeder' in pursuit of silverware.

Commercially orientated breeders – those who need a living from the animals or strive for a return – mostly cross them with a Shorthorn, including society council members. The cross Shorthorn calf is effectively worth double a commercial Highland at the same age or, alternatively, finishing at least a year earlier than a pure Highland bullock. But the real story is the Highland cross Shorthorn heifers.

Many years ago, I bought my first batch of pedigree Highland heifers at Oban at commercial prices. They came off one of the Outer Hebridean islands and went on to produce good calves and many of their offspring went to form the foundation stock of another pedigree and commercial herd of Highland cattle about 20 miles from me.

I see them regularly and the farmer is now making a great job of Highland cross Shorthorn calves by using the unique attributes of a low-cost cow and producing a saleable product. He is most definitely making a good margin on every cow.

The Highland has competition in the hair and hardiness stakes. You don’t see many in my region, but the Galloway has a strong following and it doesn’t seem to be plagued by the fluffy cow and show brigade to the same extent as the Highland, being focused on commercial beef production. They are naturally polled so that instantly eliminates de-horning required on Highland bullocks. Their cross with the Whitebred Shorthorn produces the famous Blue-Grey.

To learn more, I went to the Blue-Grey sale at Newcastleton this week. Blue-Greys were considered the best thrifty Scottish cross cow then put to an Aberdeen-Angus to produce the ideal butcher’s beast, ready at 600 kg at 24 to 28 months. Isn’t that today’s carcase specification so sought after, including an AA premium?

Based on my trip to Newcastleton, with 750 Blue-Grey heifers on offer, the strongest demand was for in-calf Blue-Grey heifers to an Angus bull. No surprises there – a low input cow producing a calf that can receive a premium payment. Hairy coats are in demand with buyers coming considerable distances for these heifers.

Getting back to the 'fluffy cows' at Oban, I once joked to a council member at the Royal Highland Show that you don’t see the best Highlands at a showground. Why’s that, he enquired? Because they’re up on the hill side earning their keep rearing a calf. No sense of humour evident that day.

The numbers of Highlanders presented at the Oban October sale have been falling over the years. With limited numbers presented for sale and inevitably a number unsold, the auctioneers are likely questioning the financial viability of this sale at Oban. From a breed perspective, it is naive to pursue a business model based on selling fluffy cows to satisfy the hobbyists’ 'love affair'. It can only do the long-term breed prospects harm.

Highlands and Galloways have many unique qualities. Their greatest attribute being hardiness, they stay out doors all year, no straw. Just consider no bedding costs for the cow. Their first cross cows also have a hairy coat and can also out winter. Considering the price of straw, how much does a hairy coat save you?

PS: don’t tell anybody about Newcastleton, it’s a hidden gem.

The Disgruntled Drover

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