Each particular breed of animal represents a unique combination of genetic material that allows the animal to recognized as that breed. This can easily be a description of "breed character." But appearance of the animal is actually a combination of genetic material and environmental influences. Genetic material cannot be altered except by mutation or elimination, whereas environmental influences can be altered at will by the livestock producer. Certain individuals of our breed of cattle may possess the genetic ability for rapid post-weaning gain, however this may not be evident unless the animals are fed a high concentrate diet capable of sustaining maximal growth. Certain individuals may produce insufficient milk to wean a live calf, yet if that calf is put on a nurse cow and creep fed, the genetic lack of milk production in its dam will not be evident. Those traits that are heritable and passed on in the genes, whether obvious to the naked eye or not, are called genotypic traits. Those traits that are evident to the naked eye, without resorting to mathematical calculations, are phenotypic traits. In the case of a cow that produces a heavy weanling without the calf or cow being supplemented in any way, chances are that the cow is both genotypically and phenotypically a heavy milker and may well pass that ability on to her daughters, or her grand daughters through her sons.
Various genetic traits happen to be highly heritable and many of these happen to be production values such as rapid growth, meat conformation, and milk production. These traits, because they are highly heritable, respond quickly to selection pressure.
Other genotypic traits related to adaptability such as reproductive fitness, fertility, climate tolerance and parasite resistance are very slow to respond to selection. In other words, and very fortunately, it takes man a long time to screw up what Mother Nature has improved.
These points are important because much improvement can be made in production levels without the loss of adaptability to a particular environment. Genetic conservation of breed attributes and increased production are not mutually exclusive.
However, selection for production values may indirectly affect adaptability traits. Selecting for increased muscling coincides with increased birth weights. It does little good to have tremendous mothering abilities, protective instincts and good milk production if the cow cannot deliver the calf .
Selection for increased mature size leads to greater nutrient requirements which may affect the ability of the animal to sustain itself for rebreeding on forage alone. Selection for increased height results in later sexual maturity, which increases the cost to keep an animal until it is productive. (This last appears to be of little importance to many Highland breeders who do not breed their heifers until they reach two years or more of age.) Selecting larger stature in general results in longer reproductive intervals, difficult births, delayed maturity, unsound feet and legs, and ultimately shorter life spans.
There unfortunately already are in this breed a considerable population of animals that demonstrate what may be a loss of valuable genetic traits, even those traits that are notoriously slow to respond to selection pressure. There exist big, long, beautiful cows that are not particularly adept mothers; they don't clean their calf off well, or don't help the calf to find the udder. There are many examples of cows with large, pendulous udders and teats as wide as a closed fist that make the possibility of the calf nursing unassisted a virtual impossibility. Some breeders are seeing calves that rival a Holstein in size. Needless to say, there are a fair number of bulls around that are contributing their genetics to these problems.
In the 19th century, colored cattle (black, dun and white) became undesirable in their native country. The effect of that is still evident in Great Britain today. The vast majority of herds in Great Britain are comprised mostly of red cattle. Red, of course, is a recessive color in Highland cattle, so that essentially if you breed red to red you get red. When other colors of Highland cattle became unpopular, the Highland genetic pool had to be drastically reduced by slaughtering, selling or not breeding any animal that was not red. (needless to say there were some exceptions.) In recent years "crop ear" became a contentious issue for the Highland Society and the use of bulls with crop ears was banned. Fortunately common sense prevailed and the ban was rescinded because it would result in the significant loss of genetic material. Unfortunately, the prejudice against colored cattle was not rescinded in a timely fashion, and the subsequent loss of genetic material must have been extreme.
Consider that this is a breed that by all accounts started out as a mostly black. If this kind of loss has occurred in a breed that is considered one of the least affected by human hands, imagine what has been lost in other, more developed breeds. Selection for or against worthless, inconsequential traits is our worst enemy if it results in the removal of valuable genes at the same time.
Selection for increased beef production is not necessarily a detriment to all that is "Highland" if it is carefully coupled with attention to low birth weight, high milk production and post weaning gain without necessarily adding tremendous frame size. It behooves us, as conservators of rare genetic material, to preserve that which is Highland as well as improve potential economic gain. Preservation of Highland cattle from a genetic standpoint, must include all those characteristics that we, as an individual and as an association, promote to the public, and which have long been recognized as traits of the Highland.
The ability to thrive on marginal land may one day again become an important factor in beef production. If the day should arrive when all grain production must go to feed a starving world, only those breeds of livestock capable of producing without high energy feed input will be useful. With the return of natural predators such as the wolf and coyote to many areas, cow-calf producers may have to rely more on natural means of protection. This could include using cows with very developed protective instincts and horns to back up those instincts. Highland cattle still possess a number of traits alone or in combination, that deserve to be preserved intact.
Romantically speaking, several centuries from now, in the face of a new ice age, our Highland cattle and Highland crosses could be of far more importance to mankind than virtually any other breed, including the other British breeds, and the continental and subcontinental breeds. Highland cattle could potentially be the mainstay of livestock production and even human nutrition and life. There is, of course, only one catch; they still have to be here.