Highland Cattle: The Horned or the Hornless?

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Those horns!

If I asked you what your perception of a highland was, what would you say? Would you mention the striking set of horns, their characteristic shaggy coat? Perhaps you might comment on the flavorsome and well-marbled beef, or even the cute, fluffy calves? But would you, or could you picture a Highland as a polled breed?

There are some farmers out there who have been breeding a polled ‘Highland’ and this has led to some debate within the Australian Highland Cattle Society as to whether a subsidiary herd book should be created to include these animals. A herd book is a database used to record the pedigrees of cattle and other livestock and is widely used around the world. The creation of this subsidiary book would allow a polled version of the breed to bear the Highland name. This was put to the vote last year and accepted, but on further reflection and some confusion the society has asked us to consider and recast our votes.

  • YES we vote FOR the establishment of an appendix for genetically polled Highlands
  • NO we vote AGAINST the establishment of an appendix for genetically polled Highlands.

This was sent out in the post last month and I have been sitting on it for some time. You see a yes/no vote in principal sounds simple and naively James and I thought it was an easy choice. However along with the voting paper, a number of letters from AHCA members were also included. Letters for and against the cause of the polled Highlands. It was so thought provoking. I have read every single one multiple times and am still truly torn in the decision.

Introducing polled genetics to a breed is not uncommon and has previously been done with Shorthorns and Herefords. There are a number of advantages to moving to a polled herd, namely for commercial, health & safety gains. There are also drawbacks that are often overlooked, such as the loss of a traditional animal.

Not polled, but hornless.

Not polled, but hornless.

So what are the implications of each vote to the Australian Highland Cattle Society?

First and foremost we should consider the social implications. Whichever way the votes are cast, there will be unhappy parties on either side. So much so that some members have declared their resignation to the society should a certain decision come about. A yes vote will anger ‘traditional’ breeders as they tend to view the polled ‘Highland’ as an inferior animal, that is not true to the breed. A no vote will alienate a growing number of polled breeders from the society and leave an excellent tasting animal without an identity.

Leading on from this would be the financial aspect. There are a growing number of polled breeders, which means more memberships and more animal registrations. This helps keep the society afloat, not to mention more animals on show at events! The downside of this is the cost of setting up the subsidiary herd book – one that the polled breeders would solely fund should a YES vote be the majority. It goes without saying that a strong NO vote would reduce member numbers and the income from registrations. With such a small society, can this be ignored?

Commercially, a YES majority would be beneficial to breeders hoping to make a crust off breeding a slow maturing animal under the Highland name. There would be lower maintenance costs (no de-horning) and the added health and safety gain from not having to work around large horns. This would subsequently open the doors to more abbatoirs and could reduce transport costs from taking animals to a closer slaughterhouse.

But what about the image (perception) of the Highland? Of course the name would help, though I can’t help but wonder how it would go down if people realised they were a hornless variety? Would it tarnish the image of a Highland as we know it? Voting NO would help to preserve the breed characteristics and this image. The horns are written into all Highland Breed Standards. “Above all, the head and horns of a bull must give the impression of strength and masculinity.” (AHCA 2014). They are integral to the breed.

Hamish looking masculine.

Hamish looking masculine.

One final point to consider is the security of the traditional herd. There are concerns that the polled genetics would end up back in the mainstream Highland gene pool down the track, introduced through the grading up of animals. This is a risk and would require careful record keeping to ensure the genetics aren’t mixed together. We already suffer from a small gene pool in Australia. Voting YES could see this diminish further and cause the traditional Highland to enter the rare breeds list. Having said that, a NO vote could do just the same. Without the freedom to choose a Highland without horns, people may be deterred from the breed due to not feeling safe. Could voting YES open the door to new breeders?

Is there a middle ground?

Dehorned commercial and Horned breeder.

Dehorned commercial and Horned breeder.

In short no as this is a YES/NO vote. James and I consider ourselves to be in the middle, genuinely torn by this decision. As (hopefully) commercial farmers we can understand the arguments for the polled breed and the need or opportunity to have more breeders. Having said that, we are traditionalists and love the Highland image with horns. To compromise we keep our stud and breeding stock in tact and dehorn our commercial stock (steers) at an early age. I am sure that even this would raise the eyebrows of the truly traditional breeders!

I hope I have presented this argument in a neutral manner. There are pro’s and con’s to each decision and all are worth considering – and sharing, because this is real stuff in the making! I will have to make a choice for us soon as the votes close on the 31st July.

If you were making this decision, what would you choose?

– Rachael

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