Highland fold began with Oban stock

Eoin Mhor of Black Glen.

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With the Highland Cattle Society annual spring show and sale in Oban imminent, attention is firmly focused on the breed. The show is on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, February 8, 9 and 10.

Highland cattle are often mistaken by others as hobby breed but more and more breeders are proving that the hardy, low maintenance breed not only has a pedigree worth, but a strong commercial value too.

Father and son duo Alex and Grant Hyslop, who farm near Crawfordjohn, in Lanarkshire, are in the process of building up a commercial herd of Highlanders to cross with the Simmental to produce replacements for then crossing to the Aberdeen-Angus.

Grant and his girlfriend Abbie Finlayson are also in the midst of increasing their 14-cow Black Glen pedigree fold which was established in 2015 with purchases from Oban to include a cow bought from David Cameron’s dispersal, a heifer from Balnabroich and a cow with heifer calf at foot from Tordarroch.

‘Highland cattle are so easy managed and have a great nature,’ said Grant, who recently stood reserve overall senior champion at this year’s Stars of the Future Calf Show, with a yearling bull purchased privately from Michael Poland’s Mottistone fold.

‘Although Highland bullocks do take slightly longer to fatten, the male calves are just as productive as any other store calf and females can be crossed to any other breed to produce hardy and low maintenance cross-bred replacements.’

The family business stretches across 1,500 acres of mainly hill ground split between three units. Blackburn and Glentewing are both owned, while West Lindsayland, near Biggar, is rented.

They run a flock of 1,100 breeding ewes to include 600 Blackface ewes which are either crossed to the Cheviot or the Bluefaced Leicester, as well as a handful of pure and cross Texels. The Scotch mule ewes further down the hill are tupped to either the Texel or the Beltex for producing prime lambs which are sold through Lawrie and Symington’s Lanark Market.

The beef enterprise comprises 35 breeding cows of which the majority are Aberdeen-Angus Friesians, while 10 are Highland cross cows. In the past, the Angus Friesians were bulled to the Aberdeen-Angus but they now run with the Simmental.

‘Our first experience with the Highland cattle breed was when dad bought three older cows at Lanark Market a few years back,’ said Grant.

‘When I was a youngster, I was badly hurt by a cow which was protecting her young calf. I was traumatised and wasn’t confident around cattle anymore but I feel it was through working with the Highlanders that I got my confidence around cattle back.

‘Since the first cows were bought in, we’ve been buying at most of the Oban sales ever since. It’s really important to support and buy at premier shows and sales because it’s the auction system which guarantees the best price,’ he added.

Grant and his father hope to phase out the Angus Friesians, and instead, run a similarly sized herd of either pure or almost pure Highlanders for running on a section of the hill ground at Glentewing. The plan is to cross them with the Simmental for producing cross-breds which will then be run at another unit when crossed with the Aberdeen-Angus.

‘Dad and I went on visits to Woodneuk and Balnabroich to see similar operations with cross Highlanders and we were really impressed by the cattle we saw so it encouraged us to do the same,’ said Grant.

‘We like to use the Aberdeen-Angus over the crosses as you get ease of calving and the naturally polled gene. The whole purpose behind the Angus is to try and eventually have cross-bred females which won’t need dehorned.’

At present, the pure Highlanders run alongside the Angus Friesians, while the pedigree Highlanders graze on ground at another unit. Grant pointed out that the 14 pedigree females ran with the bull on the same land that could only previously cope with 110 Scotch mule ewes.

He said: ‘The pedigree cows utilise the poorer performing ground and are only fed silage throughout the winter, yet still manage to maintain condition. Bigger continental cattle couldn’t cope here without us having a massive feed bill.’

The cows are split calving, with some calving throughout January and others during March and April. Commercial calves are weaned in October and brought inside when introduced to ad-lib feed from a bunker feeder, before being sold through the store ring at Lanark in March.

Male calves from the pedigree fold which aren’t suitable for breeding are weaned at eight months of age and cut, dehorned and overwintered. They go straight back outside and are fed 2kg of concentrates per day along with ad-lib silage, before being sold store at 17 to 18 months of age.

In September, the duo sold bullocks to Stephen and Rosie Hunter, who run the Hunters fold and finish commercial Highland heifers at Barnhill, Allanton, near Shotts, every year. The heaviest of the batch weighed 380kg.

‘It would be ideal if we could beef the animals ourselves but we don’t have the shed space or hard enough ground to winter bullocks for two and a half years,’ explained Grant. ‘It’s a system we are happy to continue with as long as the demand for good-quality, Highland beef continues. You can’t beat the eating quality.’

In the pedigree fold, Grant retained his first bull Eoin Mhor of Black Glen, which was bought inside his dam Banrigh of Mottistone, at Oban in 2016. His dam is a former Royal Highland Show champion, while the sire has bred bulls to 10,000gns and heifers to 4200gns.

All 14 pedigree cows are scanned in calf to him, with the first of his calves due on the ground at the turn of the year.

On the other side of the equation, Grant received a top price to date of 1,800gns for the two-year-old heifer Duchess of Black Glen, at Oban in October 2018. She sold to the Leys fold and has been shown successfully at shows in the north.

In the meantime, Grant and his dad are continuing to build up the size and quality of the pedigree fold.

‘Our main aim at the moment is to become a closed herd so we can breed females for both pedigree and commercial use,’ said Grant. ‘One day, we hope to be able to sell heifers for either pedigree use or as commercial breeding heifers.’