In New Zealand, Highland Cattle have traditionally been a breed that has been embraced by lifestylers. Originally considered a rare breed in New Zealand, Highlanders are in the main being bred to build up stock numbers and to diversify the genetic bloodlines. New Zealand is one of only two countries in the world that have used other breeds to 'breed up to' purebred stock, the other being Australia. Most new genetics are imported as semen from Australia, Canada, America and Scotland. There are also more and more embryos being imported.
However, Highlanders are becoming more and more common and well known. Anecdotal evidence is indicating downward pressure on prices, as the supply of animals is starting to outstrip demand. Of course, there will always be a market for top-quality genetics, but what else is there for breeders of Highlanders?
Highlanders as an ancient breed were so popular because they supplied crofters with milk, hair and meat. It's this meat that has exciting possibilities for the Highland Breed. In Scotland, where Highlanders have been farmed for meat for many years, Highland meat is well known as premium beef. In research carried out by the Scottish Agricultural University, Highland beef was shown to be 40% lower in total fat than regular beef and 20% lower in cholesterol, while having improved quantities of iron and protein per 100g.
This is because Highlanders carry their fat within the muscle fibre, which creates marbling. Those heavy double-layer hairy coats provide the warmth necessary, which means the layers of outer fat traditionally laid down by other breeds for the winter are not necessary.
The other advantage the Highlander has comes from that long, ancient time living in the hills of Scotland. To be frank, they are as tough as old boots, and that's not the meat - it's their constitution. They have the ability to eat nearly everything and have developed strong natural immune systems. This makes them an ideal breed for an organic beef operation.
U.S. organic food sales have grown between 17 and 21 percent each year since 1997, to nearly triple in sales, while total U.S. food sales over this time period have grown in the range of only 2 to 4 percent a year. According to the findings, organic food sales now represent approximately 2 percent of U.S. food sales. This mirrors similar findings in New Zealand.
Breeding beef animals is much more than fattening them on the best grass and merrily sending them off to the works. The beef industry is highly competitive, and the mainstream breeds have years of experience and research behind them. To take advantage of the quality end of the market that Highland beef lends itself to, farmers must educate themselves on what the market wants, and how to produce it. There are a few boutique beef operations in New Zealand blazing this trail, and there is much to be learned from these entrepreneurs.
The main lesson is that of price. Traditionally selling live Highlanders, the price is set by the seller, using their perception of the value of the genetics, and historic market prices. Beef prices are set by the quality of the carcass, and that's determined by the works. The beef industry as a whole has set benchmarks for what a quality carcass is, by measuring indicators such as fat, weight, gender, pH, and meat colour. If Highland beef is to become a viable beef breed, then farmers are going to have to concentrate their breeding and feeding programmes to achieve the required standards in these areas.
Another key ingredient in top-class beef is the ability to trace the origin of the meat. In Scotland, the Highland Cattle Society offers the "Guaranteed Pure Highland Beef" scheme, where each piece of beef from a farm in the scheme is traceable by a certificate number, which can be quoted to the Society to verify origins. This scheme has leaked over the Scottish borders and is now being used by farmers in England, Holland, and Australia.
The one obvious disadvantage with Highlands as a beef breed is the horns. This limits the breed's ability to be handled at most New Zealand works and brings the Highland industry to a quandary. The horns are one of the things that set the breed apart from the others, and it can be tough to think about dehorning animals at a young age, knowing it will not 'look like a highland'. Given that there are not high enough volumes of Highland animals to lobby works to have a separate holding pen, and the potential damage horns can do to the meat, it's a reality that must be faced.
Highland cattle as a beef breed in New Zealand is still very much in its early days. Indications from the boutique operations is that the demand is there if the supply can be kept up. However, if the evidence from overseas is anything to go by, it's an option worth considering.
The New Zealand Highland Cattle Society is the oldest Highland Cattle society in New Zealand and has been registering cattle since June 1993. The NZHCS Herdbook currently has over 5000 cattle registered and has over 450 members. For more information please visit their website www.highlandcattle.org.nz