Piedmontese breeders bypass meat factories, sell direct to consumer

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By Oliver Moore Featured in The Irish Examiner

Tipperary and Laois farmers team up to service the public’s healthy appetite for low-fat Italian beef.

What are the options for farmers who want to break free from the stranglehold of the beef barons and factories?

There is a small but growing number of farmers with specialist breeds selling more directly to their customers. One, which has recently been added to the prestigious Good Food Ireland list of producers, is Irish Piedmontese Beef.
Farmers John Commins from Thurles in Co Tipperary and Michael Fennelly from Stradbally in Co Laois run the business. I spoke to Michael about the venture.

What convinced you to become a business man and not a seller to the factory Michael?

Originally we imported the cattle from Italy with a view to export them live, but when we got to learn more, and the fact that the meat had great eating quality and health benefits — it’s low in fat, low in cholesterol, but high in protein — we thought, ‘We have to market this in Ireland’. We wanted to realise more profit. We imported to set up the herd in ’06, ’07, then took six to seven years to get to the point that that we could sell every week. Before that, I had a herd of continental sucklers. I’ve 185 acres on the Laois-Kildare border, good agricultural land; it’s all tillage around here.

How did you get interested in Piemontese in the first place?

I saw an advert in the farming press and enquired. It was for a two-day buyers’ trip to Italy. We were exporting continentals at eight to 10 months to Italy anyway. At the back of my mind, I thought maybe there would be some sales in it for me. But the Italians weren’t interested in crossbred cattle, which I had at the time. However, there was a niche to sell pedigree Piemontese back to Italy.

What sort of cattle are they?

They can run on any farm; similar to other continentals. The big difference is they need high quality feed. They have a very tight body. In winter they need silage cut in May. Handling wise, they are similar to others, no more docile that any other breeds. They look a little different though, lighter in the bone but they grow very big. It’s in the abattoir that you see the difference, when you break down the beef. As they don’t carry body fat, all the energy from the food goes to muscle. So they don’t have fat reserves they can live off. With small bones and no fat on carcass, you get a high meat yield off them. There’s no marbling through the meat, yet the steaks are ultra tender. We’ve had it tested in UCC, and it’s less than 0.5% fat.

How do these Italian cattle find the Irish weather?

They are from the north of Italy, and the tradition there is that they were grazed on the Alps in the summer and then housed in sheds. So it’s not that different to how most cattle are in Ireland these days. All ours are pedigree. Pedigree cattle need a little more looking after than normal cattle — all pedigree breeds. So the care standards have to be higher — the feed has to be better, stress levels lower. It’s not that the cattle are delicate, but they are not as hardy as crossbred cattle.

What quantities are you doing?

I’ve 150-200 cattle, depending on the time of year. John has similar. We’re currently doing 1 to 1.5 per week, so that’s maybe three over two weeks. Yield-wise, we get 450kg to 480kg with the carcass hanging. The yield is 80% of the carcass weight, which is excellent. Our killouts are at 64%-65%, the standard is 55%-60%.

One of the advantages to what you do is independence from the factories.

You have more certainly over what’s going on. You get direct feedback from people who buy, there’s no one profiteering, no middle man — no one else is getting a cut of the cake. Originally we thought export was going to be the main thing. We knew they had good meat characteristics. However there is a lot of volatility in live exporting... unforeseen issues can crop up, from the weather to food and mouth. The distance isn’t much of an issue; the welfare protocols are there, and the welfare rules here in Ireland are very good, but there can be other factors. So if there is stormy weather, like we had in December-January, the ship can’t leave. Our butcher is Martin O’Dwyer in Cashel, he has a small processing outlet there. They never leave our site: We bring cattle to the butchers, they are killed while we are there, and we come back after a week. They are killed every Monday, boned Tuesday week, and we go in to pack our own meat. So we go in to help and cut as we need, based on the orders we have in. The meat hangs for a week; it’s so tender we don’t need to hang it any longer. So after a week the butcher bones it out, then we vac pack it into joints.

Are you happy with how it is, or do you want to grow the business?

At the moment we have enough off our farms. There are other pedigree farmers out there too, in the future we would be interested in getting them to rear for us and we’ll finish. A unit for processing the meat would be great too, to give us more control. We have new packaging coming, a modified atmosphere pack —we were too small previously to get into that.

How do you compete with the other quality breeds? The more local British and Irish breeds, which have such a strong and positive marketing message — the Herefords, Angus, Galloway and so on?

For us, the message is health, with all the other positive traits of steak. So our steaks are succulent and juicy but still healthy, and we’ve the tests done in UCC to prove it. Our meat is lower in fat than chicken or fish, higher in protein than turkey. www.irishpiemontesebeef.ie

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