Since 1992 Lin and I have been trying to breed or acquire good, small Highland Cattle bulls. It has been the toughest part of the project. Until members of the International Miniature Highland Cattle Association (IMHCA) started selling animals recently, there really were only a few other Mini Highland bulls on the face of the earth. In the summer of 2005, the IMHCA decided that only the best Mini Highland bulls should be sold because this is the restoration of this very special breed and it would be counter productive to allow bulls of lesser quality.
You can start your bull search with breeders of standard Highland Cattle. However, they typically slaughter small bulls early on rather than feed them. They certainly don’t want them to breed their standard females. Even when you do find one, you have to guess why it is small. Was it hereditary or was it environmental (a feed or health related problem that stunted the animal)? If you contacted breeders of the larger herds and told them you are looking for especially smallHighland bulls, you may get a lead on one. The American Highland Cattle Association (AHCA) has their membership directory, by state, online at http://highlandcattleusa.org/memberlist.asp
When you do find one, use the Frame Score Chart on the International Miniature Highland Cattle Association (IMHCA) website to determine what you might have, based on the animals birth date – hopefully you can find a minus 3 or smaller. Also, make sure you believe the animals birth date is correct and ask if there are records or recollection of the animals parents heights. This may entail a few phone calls to other breeders. The Frame Score Chart is just a guide because you never know when an animal is going to get a growth spurt.
Nate Joslin ofNorth Stonington,CT, a breeder of Mini Highlands since 1999, feels that once an animal starts to show maturity and interest in breeding, that their growth rate will slow down. Animals that take longer to mature will continue to have a higher growth rate. Dr. Lee Goacher, another Mini Highland breeder fromGardner,CO, tells us that this has validity because it parallels the same phenomenon in humans.
It is the phenomenon known as Precocious Puberty. Typical puberty usually occurs during adolescence and this is when kids develop physically and emotionally into young men and women. Precocious puberty is the earlier onset of puberty. When puberty ends, growth in height stops. Because their skeletons mature and bone growth stops at an earlier age than normal, kids with Precocious Puberty usually don’t achieve their full adult height potential.
Their early growth spurt may make them initially tall when compared with their peers, but they may stop growing sooner and end up at a shorter height than they would have otherwise. Although this is more common for girls, in about 5% of boys, Precocious Puberty is inherited. Starting puberty early can be passed to the son from the father or to the son from the maternal grandfather through the mother.
Although we don’t know about bulls, Precocious Puberty describes heifers that show signs of reproductive maturity at usually less than 300 days of age. Occasionally, precocious puberty, which is a fertile heat, can even occur as early as six or seven months of age.
So, find out when the bull first started to show breeding interest and look at their testicular development, etc., compared to their herd mates and see if they may be early to mature.
Or look for a Mini Breeder. When we started our mini project in the early 90’s we found leads on three mini herds and tried to track them down. It turned out to be the same herd. It started in the early 1980’s by Fredericka Wagner at her Flying W Farm,Piketown,Ohio. The herd was then purchased by John Fernandez of Heaven’s Gate Farm and located inEastern Oregon for a time and then that owner moved toWestern Oregon. John subsequently sold the herd to Meadow Wood Farms inSnohomish,Washington. Meadow Wood Farms had over 1,000 animals of various breeds, but these were the only cattle.
They had 2 – 2 year old bulls for sale. We bought one and used him as a herd sire on all our small and largeHighlands, and that made a big difference – Gabriel had 10+ years of small genetics bred into him and that was just what we needed.
A few years later, we went back and purchased the original females. By that time the owners had lost interest in cattle and for some reason had brought in a full sized bull. Consequently, the offspring were all over the board. They wanted to get rid of all of them, but we only wanted their old blood.
Finding a smallHighlandbull was fortuitous because out of desperation, we had purchased a “ZeDex” (a cross between a Mini Zebu and a Dexter). He was small and only about 6 months old. I kept looking at him trying to figure out how many generations it would take to get that hump off and finally slaughtered him without using him. You have to be ruthless about slaughtering your animals that don’t fit the project. You don’t want your half good stuff and bad stuff getting out to people that would then palm them off as good and ruin the reputation of a breed that you have “busted your pick” to restore and keep on the high end.
Although a Dexter is a logical outcross to bring down the size, we are NOT recommending this because it is not necessary and the money you might save would go out the window as you culled the animals that were not “classic”. Also, you would be many generations away from what you really want. With a smallHighlandbull, or semen, you have a much higher chance of getting classic smallHighlandson the ground in the first generation.
The bull with a small genetic is a very important aspect of your breeding program because that is fully half of your herd’s genetic. It seemed that the first breeding to Gabriel brought size down in a hurry, but then we had many average years with about half small and half too large. We eliminated all the large animals and kept only a few replacement bulls.
So, we have been focused on this longer than anybody in the world, near as we can tell. We have talked to many breeders in theUSand other countries and have seen smallHighlandprojects, but there was often too much evidence of other breeds in their projects or the animals were just not small enough. We just want that classicHighlandlook and an outcross would take too long to get things back on track.
Close Breeding has advantages and disadvantages. Our animals are mostly related to each other and I don’t claim to be very scientific about it. There was no other way to do it and it is not easy to get away from some in-breeding at this point. We had up to 60 plusHighlands just to accomplish some diversity. Now we’re down to about 45 and we do have a good foundation herd. We have all six officialHighland colors and classic looking animals. We now get about 2/3rds mini calves. I’ve either been very lucky with in-breeding or it is not as terrifying as it sounds.
There is a great deal of precedent for inbreeding, including Robert Bakewell, the first great expert in animal husbandry in England:
“Bakewell divorced himself from the common practice of crossing breeds, which tends to dissipate good qualities, and adopted in its place the practice of “breeding the best to the best” regardless of relationships. This meant a considerable amount of inbreeding, a practice generally taboo in the England of that day.”
Breeding and Improvement of Farm Animals, Victor Arthur Rice and Fredrick Newcomb Andrews, c 1951, McGraw-Hill
When you inbreed “breeding the best to the best” you will magnify the good and bad characteristics of the animals you pair up. This goes for physical characteristics as well as disposition. As soon as you see a characteristic going south, you have to be ready to cull.
New lines and Artificial Insemination. In addition there are heifers, bulls and semen now available from New Zealand’s Ruatiti Fold, owned by Graham and Lyn Mills. They have had over 500Highlands and were able to come up with a mature 38” Brindle bull, McTavish. McTavish was made herd sire of a group of about 40 of the smallestHighlands in the Mill’s herd and that was the start of a very solid Mini Highland project. The results of the Ruatiti efforts can be seen at http://ruatiti.highland-cattle.co.nz/
This was great news for us and we at Trembath Mountain Ranch will be able to sell McTavish’s semen. Ruatiti will be able to sell semen on their side of the Pacific from our bulls Armando (Black) and Traveler (Light Red). That semen should be available yet this year. If you are interested, get in touch with Rick Sanders or Graham Mills (each of us represents all three bulls) and then find a good Artificial Insemination (AI) technician in your area and begin to prepare your females.
Trembath Mountain Ranch project. In the US, we believe we have the absolute best Mini Highland project that has had no outcrosses in over 13 years, at least. We sold out our yearlings in 2005, but will have more available in 2006.
It has been a long haul to get to this point, but it’s been worth it. This restored breed is a throw back to the way they used to be hundreds of years ago. They are so tough and hardy they command your respect. The smaller size has many advantages and they are absolutely the most beautiful of all cattle breeds. Our goal is to make sure that IMHCA establishes the primo mini cattle breed, and that has to be done carefully and consistently.
So, specialize in Mini Highlands and create great foundation stock. No matter what you do, we wish you the best of luck and would be glad to help you. Good hunting!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.