Building a Miniature Highland Cattle Herd

“No one is going to sell you their best animals” stated a great northwest Highland Cattle breeder to my wife, Lin, and myself one day as we sat in the grass of his pasture.  We were brand new at it and he was just explaining how we would be treated as new breeders of these beautiful cattle.

We understood, frankly, because we could not have recognized a great animal anyway, so why would someone who worked hard to build a prime herd sell us their best?  Money?  Not usually.  Highland Cattle Breeders seldom are in it for the money.  Highland Cattle are a life style choice.

By getting to know the breeders and showing our cattle, we began to recognize what made up some of the best of each.  Luck plays a very small part in breeding great cattle.  Concentrating on the basics of good beef cattle bring the best results overall. These characteristics work for economics and the long term viability of the breed.  For miniatures the only difference is that we like them small.

Color, horn shape, ear shape and so on, if desirable only for esthetics, don’t count for much in the long term health and viability of the breed.  However, breeders of miniatures will breed for esthetics because of the attention of the exotic and collectable buyers and the owner of a small acreage that likes an animal with eye appeal.

Cute sells, but the basics of good confirmation (how the animal physically is set up to survive and produce) must stay with any viable breed.  Examples of how lack of attention to these basics can backfire can be found in the purebred dog world.  Some dog breeds lost popularity because the dogs went downhill on confirmation and were no longer desirable.

Working on the ground floor of a breed like Miniature Highland Cattle has it’s pitfalls also.  I bought many smallHighlandsand I would like to say that they all had great confirmation, but that is not true.  At this point in my Miniature Highland project, I want animals of small size, so I focus on a small frame and a short lower leg.  But if the animal has beautiful eyes (as seen in the 1800’s pictures) or if it was a color I didn’t have,  I added it to the herd even if I did not like the confirmation.  These were long term marketing decisions but they fly in the face of good beef confirmation. It may take some long term work and culling to bring good confirmation back to parts of a herd.

Miniature Highland Cattle should be judged solely on beef characteristics but when it comes time to sell in the exotic market, emotion is king.  Alpacas sell for 5 times, or more, than their very close cousin, the Llama.  Alpacas are smaller, handle easier and eat less but esthetically they are simply more beautiful and this gives them the edge to sell for much more.  So if the underlying requirement for long term, good confirmation is followed to keep the breed on the straight and narrow, esthetic points can be pursued to some degree.

I have a number of small brood cows, but my jump start is from using a good small bull.  I put the bull to my big cows and they all produced a calf, in spite of a 10″ height difference between my bull and biggest cow.  Just like people, 50% of the genetics come from each parent, so a small bull can really give you a jump start even with your existing full size cows.  Finding a small cow is great, but because the bull is 50% of your entire herd genetics, finding a small bull with small genetics is the important part.

You might have read literature on small cattle and know that cattle on subsistence farms 100 or more years ago were small, not large.  They had to be small because no one had today’s supplements, medications, feeds, squeeze chutes , panels, electric fences, etc. that large cattle require.  Small farm families then lived in very close proximity to their livestock and big was not necessarily better.  Breeds were “improved” in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by making them larger to carry more meat, but the genetic of that small cow can be reawakened with the right combination.  Consequently, small to small usually throws small and small to large can often throw small.  I tried it and was very pleased with the number of small animals I could produce.

Small animals can be found but it is a bit of a crap shoot unless you can see a height pattern in the parents and usually those records were never kept by breeders of large cattle.  Cattle can be small simply because of stunting.  Stunted cattle do not necessarily have any genetic that reproduces small.  However, a “runt” can be a different story because this animal has been small from birth and is very likely to carry that small genetic.

During the last decade it has really been fun to ferret out sources that can help me understand how to reduce height and enhance eye appeal.  Other mini cattle breeders are an obvious source as are the breeders of other miniature species.  Dr. Dick Gradwohl, who breeds mini cattle, and who has founded a number of new breeds, loaned me a copy of  “The Basis of Line Breeding” by J.H. Lents.  This has great information, from a layman, about breeding in general.   Dick gives a copy away every time he sells an animal to a new breeder.  This is an excellent way to get people to a common basic level of understanding.

My County Agriculture Extension Agent spent quite a bit of time with me and gave me other resources and leads.  He also gave me the analogy of a rib eye steak that just about fills a dinner platter as a reason why smaller cattle are becoming desirable again.  If you don’t even know the basics of genetics, refer to a middle school science text book and read the chapters on heredity and genetics.  Just watching 3 or 4 generations of families at church will point out possibilities!

How do you know a breeder is correct?  How do you know a bad animal from a good one?  Well, when I asked my friend how I could start understanding the value of houses, he said “go look at a hundred of them”.  The same applies to the cattle breeders or cattle and you can find them at fairs, shows, association meetings and at their farms. Lin and I have had fantastic Sunday drives and found wonderful new friends by simply trying to look at a hundred of them.

Rick Sanders


Rick Sanders has had Miniature Highland Cattle since 1992.  He and his wife owned Blue Dawn Farm in Portland, Oregon.  In 2003 they moved their cattle to their new Trembath Mountain Ranch in Fiddletown, California.  Rick founded the International Miniature Highland Cattle Association, Inc. (IMHCA) and can be reached at P.O. Box 22, Fiddletown, CA 95629, 209-245-6973 or