When Debbie Lamborn purchased a painting featuring a hairy cow with long horns, she had no idea that it would change her life.
She Googled “hairy cow” and discovered that her painting was of a Scottish Highland. She was obsessed. She read everything she could about the breed, and soon learned Scottish Highland cattle have many desirable qualities, aside from their stunning looks and rich history.
Their small size makes them ideal for women ranchers, and their gentle, friendly natures make them excellent family farm animals. The breed also turned out to be an efficient choice for ranching in the Ozarks. Debbie was not entirely new to the cattle industry.
Travis and Debbie Lamborn began their life together on a Limousin cattle ranch in Oklahoma in the 1980s. Debbie was busy with their three small children; and although she loved ranch life, she was not involved in the day-to-day operations. Little did she know that cattle ranching would one day become her passion.
Even before purchasing her first heifer, Debbie joined the American Highland Cattle Association and began attending auctions and Highland shows so she could learn as much as possible about the breed. In 2016, the Lamborns purchased 68 acres about 12 miles north of the Arkansas-Missouri state line and began Lamborn Farms near Washburn Mo. They are still in the early stages of building their “flock” (as Highland herds are called). The Lamborns intend to get into the beef business. Debbie is constantly studying breeders and bloodlines and carefully selects each heifer they purchase.
The efficiency of the breed was a big draw for the Lamborns. They found that Scottish Highland cattle were well-suited for the Ozarks. Bred for the rocky moors of Scotland, they don’t require the lush green pastures that most cattle breeds do. While Travis prefers Bermudagrass for his commercial cattle, his pasture at Lamborn Farm is a mixture of Bermudagrass and fescue, and the flock does well on it.
“They are foragers. They will eat a tree that has leaves on it,” Travis said. “We keep hay out all winter, but unless there’s snow on the ground, they just really aren’t interested in it.”
Another mark of efficiency is return on investment. It’s very common for them to calve into their twentieth year. They generally throw calves without trouble, and require little maintenance. Highland cattle are gaining popularity, and there is a growing niche market for their products. The rich, lean meat lends itself well to grass-fed and organic markets, getting top dollar. The skulls, horns and skins are prized as decor and can bring in thousands of dollars per cow. Low feed cost, calving longevity, high-value beef, and skull and hide sales combine to make the initial investment very profitable.
One of the main differences the Lamborns found between their commercial beef cattle and their Highlands was the social nature of the breed. They are very communal and behave like a family. For instance, often one member of the flock is elected “babysitter” and will hang back and guard the new calves while the others feed. Highlands are generally gentle and friendly with humans as well. Debbie often gets on her Polaris and drives out among the flock to sit and watch them. One by one they will come up and visit her. Because of this interaction, she knows their individual personalities so well that she can immediately tell if one is acting in an unusual way, making it easy to diagnose and treat problems. The Lamborns plan to keep their operation small in order to preserve that hands-on interaction.
Debbie feels a close bond with her cows, but is cautious when she describes the relationship.
“I hate to use the word ‘pet’ because a lot of people say ‘Oh, I want a pet.’ Well, it’s a cow. And it’s a cow with horns. It is not a Golden Retreiver. You have to be wise enough to know that a cow at some point could be dangerous,” she said.
The Lamborns have encountered very few obstacles with their Scottish Highland cattle. The only issues stem from their shaggy coats. Summers can be very warm for the breed, but the Lamborns are fortunate to have a year-round running creek on their property, and the flock spend the hot season cooling off in their watering hole. Their long hair can also cause issues with fly strike. The Lamborns groom their calves and make sure they are kept clean as much as possible. They combat the problem by planning calving in early spring, before flies are a problem, and by feeding the flock minerals with fly control before the summer months.
When asked if their Highland experience has been what she expected, Debbie said it has been so much more. Over the years she and Travis have travelled a lot and shared many experiences, but they have found that working together on the farm brings them the most happiness and fulfillment. She feels that the experience has made her less materialistic as she learns to value the land, the fresh air, and being more in tune with nature.
“Maybe this is what we’re all supposed to do,” she mused.