There were a few raised eyebrows when Jaylyn Ettinger decided to build a Highland cattle herd.
“My dad thought we were crazy,” said Ettinger, who farms with husband Grant Marchand near Czar in east-central Alberta.
But in the three years since the couple bought their first five Highland cattle, he’s come around.
“Now he loves them — he says he wants the hills filled with Highlands,” said Ettinger, who grew up on her family’s cattle operation just down the road from where she farms today.
When the couple moved back to the farm with their three kids in 2008, they knew that they would need to get creative to work around Marchand’s demanding oilfield job.
Highland cattle seemed like the perfect fit.
“We wanted something that was easy to work with, that calved easy, and that finished well on grass,” said Ettinger, who now has around 70 head of purebred registered cattle.
“Highlands are the whole package.”
For the most part, they’re docile and easy to manage — but come with a stubborn streak a mile wide.
“They’re super smart, and they’re stubborn,” said Ettinger. “When we’re bringing them in to vaccinate in the spring, there’s a few smart old girls, and what somebody else could do in a morning takes us from morning ’til dusk.”
Because they calve easily, some commercial breeders will use a Highland bull on their first-year calvers.
“They generally just spit them out, and their mothering instinct is strong,” she said, adding birth weights are usually between 50 and 75 pounds.
“Our first year calving, one of the cows ended up calving in February during one of the worst storms we’ve seen. But she just bunkered him down in bedding and stood over top of him during the storm, and he was fine.”
They’ll also eat anything — a real plus in a year like this one where drought and insect damage decimated pasture land across the province.
“Sometimes the pasture here isn’t the greatest, and these guys browse,” said Ettinger, who estimates their pasture land saw only about six inches of rain this year.
“They eat a lot of vegetation that the other cattle won’t eat.”
Lean but tender
Because they’re grass fed and smaller than most commercial cows — steers generally finish at around 1,000 pounds — they take a bit longer to finish.
“Our boys go in as close to 30 months as we can push it,” said Ettinger. “We try to send them into the butcher at the end of September and into October. After those fall grasses have hardened off, the sugar content goes up, and they just balloon.”
The animals that don’t make the cut for breeding stock go into the couple’s small meat program.
“This year, we butchered 11. Next year, we’ll have five,” she said, adding they participate in the Verified Beef Production program.
“We haven’t done much marketing because there isn’t much to do. It’s mostly been word of mouth.”
Highland cattle meat is “lean but well marbled,” she said.
“I always make sure people try it before they purchase a bigger order because it’s kind of in between bison and beef,” she said. “It has a little bit different texture, but it’s tender even though it doesn’t have a lot of fat in it.”
Their customers tend to be more a little more discerning than the average consumer.
“We make sure to match each customer with each animal. I can tell them everything about their animal. Some even ask for pictures.”
Preserving the breed
Ettinger is able to offer that level of detail because of the genetic records she keeps using a cattle management program her father designed called Herd Books.
“We don’t have that many in Canada, so knowing that pedigree is important to know that you’re not inbreeding,” said Ettinger, adding it’s also easier to cull bad stock that way.
“Preserving the breed is very important. Crossbreeding and mixing is certainly good, but I think it’s important to keep those original building blocks so if something goes wrong, you have something to come back to.”
Starting out with unregistered cattle likely “set (them) back a year,” and as they’ve been building the herd, they’ve kept “a few more bad bags” than they should have.
“Their offspring goes straight into meat, so we do have to fiddle a little more with those genetics.”
Despite some of the drawbacks that come with producing a relatively novel breed, interest in Highlands is growing in Canada, said Ettinger.
“We get calls every week from people looking for heifers or cows,” she said.
But Ettinger doesn’t expect that Highlands will replace more traditional Canadian cattle breeds any time soon.
“They just aren’t suited for a commercial operation, with the hair and the horns,” she said.
“Feeding them in a feedlot situation, you’d just end up with bruised meat because they would bump each other.
“There’s no way that, all of a sudden, the countryside is going to be overrun by Highland cattle.”
But there will be a few more near Czar — the couple is looking at expanding their herd to around 100 animals in the next few years.
“We’ve just fallen in love with them.”