Great Looks, Great Nature, Great Value

People choose to own Scottish Highland Cattle for many different reasons. But for us the decision came down to the the three criteria above. Lets's look at each one in turn.

Great Looks

The first and most striking thing about Highland cattle is their wonderful looks. Their stocky stature, their shaggy coat and their impressive horns. These characteristics really define the breed, and it is what draws your eye to them.

Whenever Highland cattle come up in conversation, people will recall when they first saw them. They will recall they were driving to such and such a place and they saw these cute cows grazing. And many people admit to the daydream of owning something that cute.

Cute they may be. But the shaggy "double coat" that insulates them from the cold and that chunky frame, to the trained eye, is nicely arranged steak. Highland cattle are beef cattle. They have been adapted to thrive in harsh environments and in doing so, produce some of the best meat available.

Ideally the good looks should be on top of a good bone and muscle structure. So the breeder is on the look out for well structured animals from which to breed. This is what is referred to as selection for conformation. Poorer structure animals are culled from the breeding pool. In the case of bulls, these are steered and sold as pets or grown on to age two or three and then killed. Heifers that don't make the grade may be bred from to assess their progeny, as in some instances they can produce excellent calves, despite their own poorer form. If they then don't meet the grade, they are killed.

Great Nature

Good nature in cattle is something that is selected for in breeding. Any breed of animal has the propensity to revert to its undomesticated state. By removing those animals with an aggressive disposition from the breeding pool, we reduce the likelihood of producing animals that are dangerous.

There's something therapeutic about having a 500kg bull amble up to you in the paddock and insist on you giving him a scratch while he falls asleep on his feet. Within a fold there is usually a "big softie" who loves to be around people. While you devote your attention to the "demanding" one the others look on curiously. Their intelligence is such they gather round trying to figure out how to get some of the action.

We must define what we mean by "good natured". In our view, good natured means that an animal does not show a tendency to be aggressive or menacing. We have animals that are able to be approached and patted in the paddock. We have others that give us a wide berth when we approach. But any animal that puts its head down and starts pawing the ground when anyone approaches it, better taste good with yorkshire pudding.

Highland cattle have personality and individuality. Some are very approachable. However, when handling in close quarters you have to be wary of their feet. Even cattle with a quiet disposition can express their annoyance, often with a quick, hopefully aimless, lash of the foot. We don't regard this as being a fault, as the confined handling of the yards is understandably stressful.

And you cannot take an animal's good nature for granted in all circumstances. It is always worthwhile bearing in mind the very strong mothering instinct of a Highland cow. Even our most approachable cows will be treated with due caution when they have a new calf at foot, especially first time calvers.

Some character traits are heritable and there are some behaviours that are learned. We have two cows which came onto our property in a frightened state. We can only assume they had a bad experience in transit. They express this in a general wariness of people. However, they have both produced offspring which are very approachable.

Great Value

Highland cattle make an excellent investment. The main reasons for this are:

  • the fundamental fact of livestock farming is that animals reproduce and can pay themselves back in a relatively short space of time,
  • their longevity - Highland cows can live to 20+ years and produce 18 calves over that time,
  • resistance to disease
  • generally more Highlands can be run to the hectare,
  • their ability to thrive on poorer quality feed
  • as a beef breed they are never worth less than their weight in mince.

Particularly for lifestyle block owners like us, these factors make Highlands an excellent investment. We made a conscious decision to run higher valued animals on our property, with the expectation we can make a better return per hectare than we could with lower valued animals.

Grant Alexander - May 2009

Thoughts on the World Economy

With Presidential Elections in the USA, a General Election here in New Zealand and an apparent "Global Credit Crisis", many of us have probably spent a bit of time thinking about what is really important.

Some time ago I heard the expression "Quality doesn't cost; it pays." My experience has borne out this maxim at various times.

  • In my late teens I bought a good quality pair of workboots. In my early working life those boots were worn everyday in some pretty rugged situations. As my work role changed, my day-to-day footwear changed, but those boots still got some outings from time to time, but were always as comfortable as ever. When we moved to the lifestyle block I wore those boots almost weekly and they finally succumbed after 22 years.
  • In my business life and at home, I have avoided generic brand computers. When I first took on my role in IT, the company I worked for had a number of "house brand" PCs. These things gave endless trouble, and usually expired in less time than the slightly more expensive, "named brand" machines that I introduced.
  • And then there are the "el cheapo" power tools I have bought for one off jobs. They did the job I bought them for but they did not last for another job.

With the economy "tanking", expenditure is going to have to be better targeted. It is obvious from the predominance of sales being advertised by retailers that the retail sector is suffering. If you're unguarded when you browse the junk mail coming through your letterbox or pay too much attention to the ads on tv, you could be tempted to buy some good stuff at quite reasonable prices. Then you suddenly realise that they are advertising some luxury item that you can live without.

Through the next year or so, those selling luxury items are going to struggle as people pare back their expenditure. Those who supply essentials or capital items that can generate more income will probably weather the downturn more readily.

Land, labour and capital (the factors of production) may lose some of the "fictitious" value they have attracted in the more bouyant times. Anything that is not backed by something tangible will lose significantly more value. Brokers and agents will refer to it as a "market correction", but the reality is that a new generation of earners and investors will be woken up to the reality that primary production is an essential and secure investment.

So What's This Ramble Got To Do With Highland Cattle?

Firstly, primary production is more likely to resist the worst impact of the recession. People need to eat. Food production is a good business to be in. While consumers may not have the money to always indulge in expensive, boutique cuts of meat, even in bleak economic times people will occasionally splurge on something special by way of celebration or as a treat.

One of the other maxims we have found in owning a smaller block is that running lower numbers of higher value animals offers better returns than having the same number of low value animals. Investing for better times during a recession is a good strategy. Being too cautious can be as unwise as being spendthrift. While the length of a downturn can't be known in advance, it can be a good time to set a business up for the future upturn.

While some people, particularly those new to the industry, will be tempted to skimp on capital stock, now is the time when, more than ever, a focus on quality will pay off in the longer term.

Grant Alexander - November 2008

How Ngapouri Highlands Sees the Industry

We got into breeding Scottish Highland Cattle for lifestyle reasons. We wanted to own land and live out of town. But we also wanted to make our land work for us. Economics, government policy, and consumer opinion is changing the nature of agriculture and forestry in New Zealand.

Farming and forestry experience economic cycles. In New Zealand, those cycles are driven by overseas demand for our products. Some of that demand is driven by what I would call "sentiment" or fashion:

  • "It is healthy to eat beef."
  • "Building houses from wood is good for the environment."
  • "New Zealand makes cool movies. Let's buy other things from New Zealand."

In some ways none of this is rational and we have no control over this kind of thinking. What we must do is adapt.

And adapt we have...

Land use in New Zealand is changing fast. Not far from where we live, immature plantation forest is being flattened to make way for gigantic corporate dairy farms. Our family home was once the homestead for a family owned and operated sheep and beef farm. It is now "headquarters" to a lifestyle block and the surrounding land is part of a dairy farm.

Dairy farming is big business in New Zealand and is currently more lucrative than other land uses. This has pushed up the value of the land, and effectively driven down the profitability of competing land uses. Sheep and beef farmers are carving off chunks of their land to sell as lifestyle blocks, and more people are feeling the urge to get out of town and breathe fresh air.

Changing land use is also being driven by environmental concerns and by legislation and not just "market forces".

So what does this have to do with Highland Cattle breeding?

Highland Cattle for the Lifestyle Block Owner

Despite the small land area of individual lifestyle blocks, the cumulative area under such management in New Zealand is significant. Those who own these properties often have the knowledge and skills to make a positive economic contribution.

Highlands are well adapted to smaller blocks. The cattle are smaller, more docile, and hardier than alternatives. Lifestyle block owners can run more Highlands than they could other beef breeds.

With the drought conditions we have experienced this summer (2007/2008) we have noticed that our Highland cattle have maintained their condition better than the Friesian-Hereford cross cows we have.

Highland Cattle for the Beef Industry

As economic and environmental pressure comes on those who farm more sensitive land, Highlands present an opportunity for adaptation.

Running lighter cattle on the more sensitive land may be a viable alternative to "locking the gate". You could:

  • consider planting up your more sensitive land in trees, and excluding cattle altogether, or
  • you might plant at a lower stocking and continue to graze underneath with Highlands, once the trees are out of "browse height".

Your Highland cows are easy calvers and mother their calves particularly well.

Highlands for the Dairy Industry

Dairy farmers can consider the option of using Highland bulls over their first time calvers. Lower birth weights mean easier calving, which is one less hassle in July and August when you're "run off your feet". And the Highland calf will finish to a "bobby calf" weight just as fast as a Hereford cross.

In 2007 we had 3 cross-bred Freisian-Hereford/Highland calves born on the property. Due to the size of the mother but also hybrid vigour these cross-bred calves have grown very well (and in spite of the drought).

Highlands are a breed that will suit Lifestyle Blocks, traditional sheep and beef and have a niche in the dairy industry.

Grant Alexander - April 2008