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Highland cattle prove to be a unique and efficient breed

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Highland cattle are an ancient breed originating in the Scottish Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland and is the oldest registered breed of livestock in the world.  

There were originally two types of Highland cattle – a smaller island type, usually black, and a larger mainland type, usually red or brown.

In 1884, a breed society was established and cattle were imported into Canada in the 1880s, then to the U.S. in the late 1890s. The American Highland Cattle Association was formed in 1948.

Montana operation

Cheryl and Tom Larsen have been raising Highland cattle for many years on their ranch near Alzada, Mont., located near the Wyoming and South Dakota borders.  

“Tom’s father bought his first Highland cattle in 1948,” Cheryl explains. “He was a founding member of the American Highland Cattle Association and helped import some from Scotland.” 

“He was interested in this breed because he saw some during World War II while he was stationed in England with the 101st Airborne, before they jumped at Normandy.  They had a furlough for the men and went to Scotland, which is when he saw those cattle,” she shares.

Cheryl notes Tom’s father thought Highlanders would be well suited for the harsh climate of eastern Montana, so when he returned from war he became acquainted with Baxter Berry, a South Dakota rancher who raised Highland cattle.

“They got together with several other people to form an association and start importing more cattle,” Cheryl says.

She continues, “At this time, Hereford was the popular breed, and people thought he was crazy to want Highland cattle. At first, it was hard to sell them, so he crossed them with Shorthorns, which was a fantastic cross.”

However, the breed has become increasingly more popular and easier to sell. Because people with small hobby farms want something exotic, Cheryl says it isn’t hard to sell heifers.

Today, Tom and Cheryl are slowing down and cut their herd of 300 cows down to 150.  

“We are getting older and trying to slow down,” says Cheryl. “Our grandson helps us so we can keep going.”

A hardy breed

Cheryl notes this wouldn’t be possible if Highland cattle weren’t such easy keepers.

Easily recognizable by their iconic shaggy coat, Highlanders are hardy enough to withstand extreme weather.

This shaggy coat is double layered and the longest of any other breed of cattle in the world. The outer, coarser coat is oily and sheds water readily, and underneath is a downy undercoat.

The breed is well suited to conditions in the Highlands, where there is a lot of rain and strong winds. Although most British and European cattle cope relatively well with low temperatures, Highland cattle are the most cold tolerant. 

In addition to withstanding cold temperatures, Cheryl shares Highland cattle don’t need any pampering. 

“They don’t need grain. In fact, feeding too much grain will ruin their feet –laminitis,” she states. “They can survive in the wild in Alaska without any care and do really well. They can also protect their calves from predators.”

“We don’t have to get up in the night to check on them for calving. They can do that by themselves,” she adds. “This saves us a lot of sleep and labor. Our vet told us if everyone raised this kind of cattle, he’d be out of business.”

Cheryl also shares, “We sold some Highland-Longhorn cross cattle to a friend of ours in Ashland, Mont. who was having trouble with mountain lions getting his calves. His cows were polled so he got some horned cattle from us.”

This rancher spent nights sleeping in the pasture in his pickup to keep an eye on his cows during calving season, but one day he left and went home for breakfast.

“When he came back, he saw blood in the snow where one of the cows we’d sold him had calved. He was afraid the mountain lion had killed the calf. He drove closer and discovered the calf was fine, but there was blood on the horns of the cow,” says Cheryl. “He saddled a horse and went back to track the cat. He found the mountain lion gutted and dead. These cows can definitely protect their calves.”

Other favorable characteristics

Being tough and hardy isn’t all the breed has going for it. Cheryl notes they produce high-quality beef which tends to be leaner than most because they are insulated by thick, shaggy hair rather than by subcutaneous fat.

The Larsens have seen this firsthand.

Cheryl shares, “There was a guy who used to buy our calves and sell meat to a big packing plant which later went out of business. He bought all of our calves and fed them out, and they graded Prime or Choice. We got premium prices during the time because the packing plant didn’t care what color they were – the only thing that mattered was the quality of the meat.”

“After another company bought them out, the new company discounted our calves on color so it didn’t work as well,” she adds. 

Highland cattle are medium in size and efficient. A mature cow weighs about 1,000 pounds, and bulls weigh up to 2,000 pounds when fully mature. 

Cheryl explains the main difference between a Highland bull and some of the other beef breeds is Highlanders don’t have as much muscling on their hindquarters, but the rest of the animal gets pretty big. Crossbreds get even bigger. 

“We had a Hereford-Highlander crossed steer that was our daughter’s bum calf,” she said. “He grew up as a pet and she broke him to ride. When he got old, he weighed 2,600 pounds.” 

Because they are so big, gentle, smart and easy to train, some people have trained Highland steers to use as oxen. Highland cattle are sometimes crossed with other breeds to have the benefits of both breeds. 

“Most bulls don’t last as long as a Highland bull will, breeding cows for 15 to 18 years, and the cows last even longer,” Cheryl concludes. “For them to last this long in our environment is really something because winters are cold and the forage isn’t always the best.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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