Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 30 May 2017

Key man behind Irish Hereford Prime producer group retires

Herefords have been in the Branagan family since the 1930s
Herefords have been in the Branagan family since the 1930s

Martin Ryan

The tradition of Herefords grazing the lands at Clonleam in Co Westmeath goes back to long ­before Willie Branagan was old enough to walk the fields.

"My father, Harry, had a few Herefords here back in the 1930s, but I never knew anything much about them or what became of them - and I don't think he made a lot of money out of them at that time," says Willie.

The present ­Clonleam ­Hereford herd was ­established more than 60 years ago, making it one of the oldest in the country; it has also become one of the most ­successful, with regular demand for all the breeding stock produced.

"In 1956, my mother, Aileen, got a present of a Hereford heifer calf from her brother, Paddy Barry in Dunboyne and the present herd mainly descends from that heifer. There is still some of that breeding in the herd," says Willie.

The Clonleam pedigree herd comprises 40 cows on the family farm near Delvin. In addition to the foundation stock, the herd has been supplemented over the years by some bought-in breeding stock.

Several prize-winning cattle have been exhibited at shows and sales over the years, with the Clonleam Delightful cow family in particular producing many successful progeny.

Niall O' Mahony (second from left), chairperson of Irish Hereford Prime, making a presentation to Willie Branagan on his retirement as secretary of the society. Also pictured are Ivor Deverel and Michael Cleary, directors with Irish Hereford Prime. Photo: Edward Dooley
Niall O' Mahony (second from left), chairperson of Irish Hereford Prime, making a presentation to Willie Branagan on his retirement as secretary of the society. Also pictured are Ivor Deverel and Michael Cleary, directors with Irish Hereford Prime. Photo: Edward Dooley

Progeny from the herd have rarely been seen in the judging rings at the shows in recent years "because the demand is very good and they are all being sold off the farm", says Willie.

He has recently retired as secretary of the specialist beef producer group Irish Hereford Prime Ltd, after 15 years, and has been honoured by the society with a presentation in recognition of his contribution to the success of Irish Hereford Prime.

"Kathleen Tynan was chairperson at the time and she rang me and asked if I would take on the job of secretary, although I was not a member of the board at that time, which was probably a good thing, rather than having a board member in the position," he says.

He attributes a lot of the success that breeders are currently enjoying to the scheme.

"When I started, the company had requirements for less than nine or 10 cattle per week, and they were being exclusively sent to one butcher. At that time the Irish market had not been properly broken into at all. It was shortly afterwards that it was started through Pallas Foods in Newcastle West distributing to the Irish market, and it rocketed from that."

The growing demand for Hereford beef has been one of the industry's success stories in recent years. Irish Hereford Prime is now supplying 33,000 cattle per year from a pool of more than 2,500 members - all of which qualify for a premium.

In addition, Slaney Foods and ABP also pay a premium to producers for cross-bred Herefords.

"The Hereford Prime schemes have been absolutely essential to the success of the Hereford because there is so much demand for the cross-bred, and the quality of the Hereford steak is now recognised," says Willie.

"The value of the Hereford calf is driving the demand in recent years, because he is making a premium at the marts - and all that has benefited the breeders. If there were no commercial market for the animals, it would be very hard for the breeders to keep going," he added.

He points out that the trials conducted by Teagasc at Johnstown Castle showed the capability of the breed for early maturing beef when cross-bred with the dairy herd.

"Some of the dairymen are our best customers for the bulls, because they need a good calf that will return them a bit extra, and they need an easy calving bull that produces a good calf for sale. They are getting that from the Hereford - a good dead calf is not much use to any farmer," said Willie.

He has no doubt that the launch of Hereford Prime by the society in 1997 has been key to the breed's current success.

"Absolutely. We were convinced that we had a superior product and, naturally enough, the meat was of a higher quality than what was on offer in the standard steak in the supermarkets at that time. The taste of the Irish was for a traditional-type steak and that was why it was started. We were not getting the message to the consumer," he said.

Willie believes that there is still a lot of scope for further expansion of the market. The product is being exported to markets in Europe, "and they tell us that they could sell a lot more of it if they could get it".

He is now chairman of the Irish Hereford Breed Society. While he says he enjoyed the Irish Hereford Prime job, at times juggling it with his own farming commitments was demanding.

At the society AGM, Irish Hereford Prime chairperson Niall O'Mahony paid tribute to Willie on his retirement and acknowledged his efforts and central role in driving the company forward to its current market-leading position.

"William was instrumental in several key initiatives undertaken by Irish Hereford Prime over the years, most notably presiding over the introduction of the highly successful 'Calf to Beef' competition that ran in 2014, as well as bringing the work of Irish Hereford Prime to a wider audience through mart promotions, farm tours and school competitions," he said.

Indo Farming