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by Denise Gunn & Eilidh MacPherson
Expat – Christiane Schmidt – who now farms Highland Cattle on 404ha near Whanganui in the North Island, New Zealand, may be a relative newcomer to the farming industry but she has brought an innovative approach to marketing her hairy product.
If anyone had told Christiane Schmidt three years ago that she would one day own a 404ha farm breeding 120 Highland cows, she would have laughed and never thought it possible.
Chris immigrated to New Zealand from the United Kingdom three years ago with her four sons, Daniel (14), Andy (13), Richard (9) and David (7).
“I had no previous experience of farming but had always dreamed of owning a bit of land,” said Chris.
The family ended up purchasing an 8ha lifestyle block near Rotorua and after considering which livestock to buy, settled on Highland cattle.
Chris said she was initially attracted to the breed’s looks and easygoing temperament.
“But first and foremost I have a passion for breeding good animals.
“Highland cattle are amongst the few cattle breeds which can be kept successfully on a small acreage.”
It didn’t take long before the Highland cattle numbers increased on Chris’s lifestyle block and she began to look for a larger property. Chris also visited Scotland during this time to gain working experience on three big Highland folds. “I decided to visit the three biggest folds in Scotland – Killochries Fold, Craigowmill Fold and Woodneuk Farm – stay with each of them for a while, look at their animals, learn about their farming practices and maybe even source some new bloodlines for my own fold.”
“I recognised that Highland cattle could have a promising future in New Zealand if marketed and promoted properly. Highland beef is premium beef. The Queen has her own Highland fold and eats exclusively Highland beef.”
On returning to New Zealand, Chris began an internet property search, finding a farm bordering the Whanganui National Park, just north of Wanganui.
“From the moment I drove up the road, I fell in love with it,” said Chris.
“The scenery was just magic.” On a clear day, sweeping views in all directions take in the Tararua Ranges to the south, the Tasman Sea northwards to Mount Taranaki and the native bush-covered hills of the Whanganui National Park.
The property, a mixture of 60ha of easy country, 222ha of steep hill country with the rest in native bush, was then running just 500 ewes and a few cattle, which were sold as stores.
When Chris and her sons moved onto the farm, they brought their 18 breeding cows and two bulls with them from Rotorua.
“I then purchased three complete Highland cattle studs from retiring breeders.”
Chris, a trained GP working three days a week in a rural practice in Waverley, manages the day-to-day farm operation herself and has had to learn how to deal with many tasks. Within the first year, she developed the property with new fences, installed water troughs in all paddocks instead of dams, and fertilised. Her four boys are also keen to help out.
“My oldest son and I have completed an artificial insemination course and are therefore able to do all our own AI. This is much more convenient as our farm is far away from the beaten track and it is not always easy to get a vet or an AI technician when we want.”
Chris’s stud, ‘Trossachs Kintyre,’ now runs 120 breeding cows, nine stud bulls and young stock.
“They are very hardy cattle and can be farmed in areas where other beef breeds would not thrive and therefore only sheep could be grazed.”
Chris has found cross-grazing Highland cattle with sheep has achieved higher stock units per hectare. She also keeps a separate black herd of 20 breeding cows inseminated with semen straws from top quality American and Canadian Highland bulls.
Cows are put in with the bulls on September 1 and calving is in June.
“The Highland cow is an extremely economical animal as she can still calve at the age of 22, so per cow you get 18-20 calves. This number is achieved by no other beef breed,” she said.
“Highland cattle have no problems calving in winter and when I wean the calves in January/February, I can put them on good pasture and have plenty of grass for them.”
All cattle on the property are grass fed without need for additional grain supplements or intensive farming practices.
The calves, including the commercial calves, are halter-trained at weaning time. “They never forget and it makes it so much easier to deliver a halter-trained calf. I just walk them onto my bull float,” says Chris who offers Lifestle farmers a unique Highland Cattle Starter pack. It includes: two heifer calves and a bull calf, individually hand-picked and halter-trained, a five page written contract, a buy-back guarantee for 3 years -of the progeny of the original starter pack, follow-up and mentoring service for the first 3 years, with the option to extend this service by mutual agreement, a business plan, tailor-made and a free phone help line 0800HIGHLANDS (0800 444 452), providing free advice and assistance to people interested in Highland cattle, as well as existing breeders.
Other support services Chris provides include: a visiting female programme where “we service clients females by running them with one of our selected sires,” bull hire to selected clients and on-farm visits and farm stays for young people interested in Highland Cattle are encouraged and arranged. Each year Trossachs Highlands sponsors a group of young Highland enthusiasts to travel on a study trip to Australia. Chris believes in positively supporting the ‘Youth of the Industry’ in a very practical sense.
“We are also at the forefront of Highland Genetic Development with a number of trials being progressed.”
Focused and dedicated to promoting quality Highland Cattle to the market while raising the level of interest in Highland animals as a breed, Trossachs Highlands developed and introduced a Franchise concept for Highland Cattle.
“The underpinning principle, which dominates the Franchise operation, is based on establishing and presenting Highland Cattle for sale with a quality standard superior to anything else available on the market.”
From the outset, the uptake of Franchise membership from existing Highland Breeders overwhelmed Chris. All Franchise Members are committed to ensuring they maintain the same quality standards and client service principles as those developed by Trossachs Highlands.
Chris said Highland cattle are slow maturing but bulls with great scrotal circumferences usually sire faster maturing heifers.
“Eventually I want all my heifers to cycle and get in-calf by the age of 15 months, so they have their first calf as two-year-olds.
“Heifers should have reached 70 per cent of their adult size and weight when first mated,” she said.
Chris selects the cows by a point system to match up with the right bulls. The points system also helps to decide if the cow will be retained as a stud animal, a brood cow or a cull cow. She aims to increase cattle numbers to 300 breeding cows.
“At least 60 of those cows will be top quality stud cows, which will in addition be registered with the Scottish Highland Cattle Society.”
Chris is currently the only breeder in New Zealand who is a member of the Scottish Highland Cattle Society.
Calves are scored at weaning time and separated into commercial and stud calves. Only the top calves are registered in the herd book. “All other calves are sold unregistered to lifestyle block owners, who want to have some hairy, good looking pets, or enter the meat chain.”
Chris is finding the rising two year old bulls are popular with dairy farmers. “The heifers don’t have any calving problems when mated to a Highland bull. The resulting calves are born at 22 - 25kg, are up and running straight away with no losses and they can go on the bobby truck within four days. If they are fattened for meat, they grow fast and show better fleshing ability than pure dairy calves.”
The R2 bulls destined for the dairy industry are dehorned on request. “But most dairy farmers opt for keeping the horns,” said Chris.
Trossachs Kintyre also runs two polled Highland bulls. “This is a very new market. Only in New Zealand and Australia are polled Highland cattle bred.”
As a GP, Chris is obviously interested in the health of her cattle and points out that Highlands rarely require more than a routine dosing, keeping veterinary bills to a minimum. “Their long lashes and dossan shield their eyes from the sun and flying insects, so pink eye and eye cancers are rare. Due to their genetic purity they are also more resistant to other bovine diseases.”
Chris has recently started to build up her own beef business. Steers are sent to the works, killed and inspected, then sent back to Chris’s butcher for hanging. The meat is vacuum-packed and sold in 10kg mixed packages.
“The best time to kill a Highland steer is between 24-30 months, depending on growing conditions, when the meat has reached top succulence.
“It is well marbled and has the lowest fat and cholesterol contents of all beef,” she said.
The hides are sent to a private tannery in Morrinsville, processed and returned to Chris to sell at the shows she attends. “There is also a market for Highland skulls, horns and Highland milk has 9.6 per cent butter fat – ideal for cheese making,”said Chris.
“The Highland cow is very docile, quite similar to the Jerseys, and will let you milk her in the paddock.”
“In New Zealand Highland Cattle are mainly perceived as a lifestyle breed, however, some forward thinking commercial beef farmers have started to recognise the Highland as a profitable beef breed,” commented Chris.
“Highland cattle breeders need to collect statistics in order to convince beef farmers.” A performance recording programme is now in place and run by Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC).
Chris recently began writing an international Highland Cattle newspaper, the Horny MOO, as a forum for breeders to gain knowledge, share ideas and information and to learn about farming practices in different countries. She hopes this independent publication will help to unite breeders from all over the world and encourage them to work together.
Her website is worth a visit – www.trossachskintyre.co.nz
Farmers: Christiane Schmidt
Location: Whanganui, NI, NZ
Cattle: 120 Highland cows and followers
9 Highland Bulls
Labour: Christiane and her four sons:
Daniel (14), Andy (13), Richard (9) and David (7)