From the Highlands
May/June 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Megan Alpers
Photos by Matt Salvo
Scottish breed of cattle finds a home in California
With their distinctive horns and coats, Highland cattle turn heads. While the cattle are ubiquitous in Scotland, the breed is still relatively rare in California.
Tina Riordan was touring Europe a little more than a decade ago when she fell in love—with a cow.
"We were on a cheese tour in Switzerland," Riordan recalled. "There was this cow I saw and didn't know what breed it was. The owner told me it was a Scottish Highland. I was hooked. I bought my first heifer in 2003. The rest is history."
Today, Riordan Ranch in Elk Grove is home to a small herd of Scottish Highland cattle, and Riordan is a passionate supporter of the breed, serving as president of the California Highland Cattle Association.
Records show the first registered Highland cattle arrived in the United States in the 1890s, but the breed's lineage in Scotland traces back centuries. Archeologists have found evidence of Highland cattle dating to 500 A.D. and written accounts from the 1100s.
Sacramento County rancher Tina Riordan is president of the California Highland Cattle Association and serves as an ambassador for the breed, praising its docile nature and adaptability.
The most prominent features of Highland cattle are their double-hair coats—a long, shaggy layer covering a wooly inner layer—and distinctive horns, growing forward on bulls and upward on cows. The most common colors are red and black, but yellow, dun, white, brindle and even silver are considered traditional.
"I've found Highlands to be very easy to care for," Riordan said. "They are highly intelligent and have a docile nature. The cows have great motherly instincts to care for their calves."
Those strong instincts come in handy in the breed's homeland, a sparsely populated region in northwestern Scotland dominated by craggy mountain ranges, heather and Scots pine trees.
"One of the incredible characteristics of Highlands is their efficiency to not only graze, but also browse like deer or elk," Riordan said, explaining that Highlands are able to make a meal out of plants that other cattle avoid.
And while Highland cattle are prepared to survive through winters reaching minus 18 degrees, in milder climates like California, they will shed some of their coat to adapt.
"Another little-known quality about Highlands is that their hair can be plied with wool and spun into knittable products such as ropes, reins, rugs, outer garments and hats," Riordan said.
All that insulating hair helps Highlands produce particularly lean beef, because they do not need as much fat to keep warm.
"It is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, naturally low in cholesterol, tender and delicious," added Riordan, who said she enjoys introducing Highland cattle to new fans at county fairs and shows in California and Nevada. "They are showstoppers. Thank goodness being in the limelight doesn't go to their heads."
The Abrahams family of Placer County raises Scottish Highland and Dexter cattle. They also raise egg-laying hens and run a farmstay where visitors can see their dairy cows up close, learning how the family dairy works.
Cow of many talents
About 45 miles north of Riordan Ranch, the Abrahams family's herd of Highlands demonstrates another use for the breed: this time as dairy animals.
"In this country, Highland cattle are not typically used for dairy, but in Scotland the homestead cows provided dairy, beef and labor," said Andrew Abrahams, who runs Long Dream Farm in Auburn with his wife, Krista, and four children. "Highland cattle milk has a high percentage of butterfat, presumably to give the calves a great, fast start in their harsh climate, but they are not big producers—only 3 to 5 gallons a day." In comparison, a typical Holstein produces 9 gallons of milk each day.
The family is working to have their dairy certified so they can sell butter made on the farm as well as cheese produced through a local creamery. In the meantime, they enjoy breeding, milking and selling Highlands, and teaching visitors about the unique bovines. When guests at the Abrahams' farmstay want to learn about milking, they can watch as the cows calmly maneuver through equipment specially made to accommodate their horns.
"When we moved to the farm, we wanted a breed of cattle that would be robust, mid-sized, good mothers and easy birthers, as well as being multipurpose," Abrahams explained. "Highland cattle turned up in all of our research and it has been a wonderful experience raising these intelligent animals."
Tell me more!
It's not just their appearance that turns heads; Highland cattle have other unique characteristics, which the California Highland Cattle Association showcases on its website.
The black, smaller Highland cattle developed on the west coast islands of northern Scotland and the red, larger variety on the mainland.
A Highland cow's horns typically grow outward and curve up, the tips pointing skyward. A bull's horns typically curve outward and forward, along the sides of its face.
Highlands are the oldest registered breed of cattle, with the first official records established in Scotland in 1884.