Going native in terms of beef breed has its risks, but for one business, it offers a low-cost system with landowners even paying for land to be grazed.
Swapping Holsteins for Highlanders sounds like a bold move, particularly when giving up the third highest yielding herd in Yorkshire with an average yield of 11,000kg.
But Robert and Wendy Phillip have no regrets leaving milk production to set up a herd of one of the most recognisable breeds for extensive systems. And over the last nine years they have established a successful meat retailing business and become a supplier of Highland beef to Waitrose.
This success is down to the slow-maturing breed’s ability to produce high-quality, flavoursome beef.
Income from the sales of beef and breeding cattle isn’t the only revenue earned by a business devoted to this native breed.
“There can’t be many cattle businesses where people actually pay you to graze their land, but that’s the case for us.
“Having Highland cattle has given us access to a vast amount of land for both summering and wintering cattle – and in some cases, where the land is part of agri-environmental schemes, we get paid for providing the cattle,” explains Mr Phillip.
Keeping Highland cattle is no “gold mine,” say the Phillips, but they have created a successful business.
And as a consequence of the breed’s demand as a tool in conservation grazing schemes, they have been able to extend the land they can graze by threefold.
“We sent a batch of 20 heifers and steers away for summering on to conservation ground in May and when they come back I will send the landowner a bill. They will thrive on this area of poor hill grazing in east Lancashire where other breeds would struggle and they won’t get any supplementary feeding.
“Highland cattle have a reputation for being an outstanding converters of poor grazing.”
There are currently around 350 head in total in the Phillips’ Hellifield Highland herd including 75 breeding cows. All cows come home to Green Farm, Hellifield, near Skipton, to start calving in February and stay there for most of the summer.
“We calve heifers at four years old. That’s the traditional way and these females last so long you can afford to do that, but some breeders with well-grown show heifers would calve-down at three years old.”
Highland cattle: Farm facts
- 350 head in total including 75 breeding cows
- Start calving heifers at four years of age
- Cows last until 15 years of age with a replacement rate of 2%
- Cattle sold aged about 30 months supply Waitrose
- Low cost – about £30 each to feed for away-wintered
Calves are weaned September/October after a month of receiving creep. Calves are housed for two weeks while the cows return to two areas of hill grazing at 1,200ft for the winter.
The weaned calves are then turned out and rehoused again before Christmas – primarily to save the ground – and fed silage and a little barley.
About 100 bullocks are bought-in each year for finishing and to supply Dovecote Park and Waitrose for the Christmas trade.
Finishing cattle are summered at grass and depending on the weather don’t receive any supplementary feed until late August/September.
“Cattle sold to Waitrose have to be under 40 months. Beef we retail from the farm tends to be from cattle aged about 30 months.
“Some of the bigger bullocks will leave us a 300kg carcass (deadweight) and while it takes longer to get there, these cattle cost very little to produce.
“The away-wintered cows on high hill land will only cost £30 each to feed – and that’s if they eat one molasses bucket apiece,” says Mr Phillip. “Only if the weather is very bad will we go up there with any hay.”
With cows lasting up to 15 years and a female herd replacement rate at little over 2%, these Highland cattle are the epitome of low-cost beef production.
Looking ahead, forward-thinking producers like Mr Phillip are fully supportive of new moves within the breed.
“We don’t want to turn the Highlander into a hairy British Blue or to get it too big, but the breed society is now embracing new ways of improving performance by identifying superior sires through its bull assessment scheme – and as retailers of Highland beef that’s something we welcome if it enables us to improve the performance of our cattle.”
Mr Phillip says without taking anything away from the breed’s appearance, there does need to be a stronger commercial attitude to help beef producers select sires more likely to pass on the required commercial traits.
“Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want to change the breed, but there are definitely opportunities to make improvements,” he adds.