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Highland cattle on the rise as an easy breed to handle

The shaggy looking long-horned Highland cattle breed is gaining popularity for their gentle nature and good quality meat. The Cowell family in southern Minnesota raises and shows the breed and had a successful trip to the National Western Stock Show in Denver this year.

Leading Highland Maryn Cowell leads one of the Highland cattle on Beyond Hope Farm
Maryn Cowell leads one of the Highland cattle on Beyond Hope Farm near Ellendale, Minnesota, on March 10, 2022. The breed is known for being easy to handle.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

ELLENDALE, Minn. — When the Cowell family first started raising cattle, there weren’t many others in their area of southern Minnesota with the Highland breed.

But that has changed dramatically in the last few years. Melinda Cowell says there are probably 10 farms with Highlands within 50 miles of their farm near Ellendale, between Owatonna and Albert Lea. Ten years ago, that number would have been more like two.

“Part of it is food availability,” Cowell said. “People were worried about being able to access food when all the COVID stuff happened.”

For people wanting to raise a low-maintenance cattle breed with good quality meat, the shaggy, long-horned Highlands are considered a good choice.

“Highlands have a name as an efficient and cheap breed to keep,” Cowell said.

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Cowell said the American Highland Cattle Association has seen a 30% increase in registrations this year “which is huge for us as an association,” she said.

The regional North Central Highland Cattle Association, with Cowell serving as vice president, has a third more members than it has ever had, she said. 

Cowell said the sudden popularity “has its positives and negatives.”

She said it's harder to market their beef than it was a few years ago.

“But breeding stock-wise, it’s great,” Cowell said. “We can’t have calves fast enough.”

Cowell said prices for heifers range from $5,000 to $12,000.

Cowell got into Highlands in part because of a desire to know where her food comes from.

Highlands also have a reputation for high quality meat. Their shaggy coat of hair means the cattle don’t need a lot of fat for warmth, keeping their meat lean.

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Lauren, Melinda, Shaelyn and Maryn Cowell stands nears some of their cows.
From left, Lauren, Melinda, Shaelyn and Maryn Cowell handle the cows at Beyond Hope Farm near Ellendale, Minnesota.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

The Cowell family —Melinda and her husband Shawn Cowell have four children, Maryn, Lauren, Ethan, Melinda and Shaelyn — didn’t want to go into debt to add beef cattle.

“Highlands are highly efficient on forage,” she said, making them appealing.

A Highland cow being combed
One of the Highland cows at Beyond Hope Farm near Ellendale gets some attention from two of the Cowell sisters on March 10, 2022. The Cowell family shows their cattle several times a year.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Watch out for scams

But Cowell said the small herd at Beyond Hope farm is still a fair amount of work.

The shaggy cows like to scratch, which can be hard on fences that are not electrified.

Highland cow by a fence
Highland cattle are known for being low maintenance, but their tendency to scratch against fences that are not electric can wear on them.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

And people interested in Highlands need to watch out for scammers.

The Cowells learned the hard way that not all Highlands are easy to handle.

They bought their first cows off of Craigslist. “Not the place to buy Highlands,” Cowell said.

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She described them as “crazy” and weren’t safe for the family to keep.

She also said there is a “mini” farm animal craze.

“People are buying poor animals and calling them ‘mini' and charging astronomical prices,” she said. “This isn’t a mini, this is a sick animal that should have been culled.”

Because the shaggy calves are cute, they are sometimes requested and given as gifts. But then that cute calf becomes a 1,200 pound animal that they don’t know how to take care of.

“It’s a challenge throughout the breed,” she said.

The Cowells decided to cull their first herd of Highlands, starting over with a heifer for Maryn, the oldest child.

A Highland calf
One of three calves born so far this year at Beyond Hope Farm near Ellendale, Minnesota.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Show time

Maryn took to showing livestock and reinvesting in the herd. The herd has grown to eight cows, six steers (two of them soon to be marketed) and three calves born so far this year. More calves are on the way. The Cowells spread them out throughout the year.

Some of the cows are Sovereigns, which are Highlands mixed with another commercial breed.

They don’t keep a bull so Maryn handles the artificial insemination and her sisters, Lauren and Shaelyn also tend to the cows.

The girls handle chores like feeding, mending fences and the calving.

Maryn said they go to about five shows a year and Melinda is the manager for the North Central Highland Cattle Association show in Austin, Minnesota, in September. 

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Maryn Cowell shows a Highland bull calf at the 2022 National Western Stock Show in Denver in January. The bull was named a champion and sold at the show for $3,500.
Courtesy / Jackie May Photography

At the National Western Stock Show in Denver in January, Maryn showed a junior bull calf that earned champion honors.

Maryn says she enjoys showing and “you can get a lot of marketing out of it.”

The calf sold at the show for $3,500.

She also likes getting the judge’s opinions on animals to help make decisions for breeding .

Halter training and showing the animals makes life easier on the 10-acre hobby farm. 

They were able to convince a veterinarian who mostly works on horses to take them on as clients in part because the vet wouldn’t have to be chasing the animals down. 

“We put a lot more work into our cattle, we handle them a lot more than other breeders,” Melinda said. “It saves our butts in the end because we don’t have to worry about finding a vet.”

Maryn’s younger sisters will have to step up as she goes off this fall to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to study animal science.

Also new this year, the farm has established some pasture that will be grazed for the first time and they are hoping not to have to buy feed for their herd.

“We love it,” Melinda says of keeping Highlands. “We love our cattle.”

Maryn Cowell with cows
Maryn Cowell, the oldest of four sisters, took an interesting in showing cows at a young age.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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