Three young Leitrim brothers are producing premium, grass-fed Dexter and Irish Moiled beef from their family farm in Cornafostra, Fenagh.
Jack (22), Tom (20) and James (15) Gilheany retail their produce nationwide, in the form of beef boxes.
The brothers say they made the change from continental breeds to Dexter and Irish Moiled beef cattle a few years ago, for land suitability and lifestyle reasons.
“The farm has been in our family since 1863 and it’s changed enterprise over time from dairy to beef.
Dad is an accountant and works full time and he always kept continental breeds such as Simmentals and Charolais,” says Jack.
“I’m working as a trainee accountant and tax advisor with KMPG in Dublin, Tom is studying Biomedical science in NUIG and Jack is in boarding school in Kildare, so we’re all off farm. Because of this, we needed low maintenance, hardy, breeds.”
The Gilheanys farm 16ac at home and rent another 11ac just five kilometres from their home farm.
“We found the Charolais and Simmentals were quite heavy for the ground as it gets very wet here. Dexter and Irish Moiled cattle are smaller and lighter, so they’re better suited to our land.
They’re easy to look after, usually calve unaided and are easily handled.”
Both Dexters and Irish Moiled cattle were on the verge of extinction only a few decades ago. Now, however, although still rare, they are becoming more widely stocked throughout the country.
The Gilheanys say this is because farmers are becoming more aware of the breed’s many great qualities.
“Both breeds are known to thrive on harsh landscape and poor-quality forage while simultaneously producing premium quality meat,” says Jack.
“It’s no secret that high quality land and forage is few and far between in Leitrim, yet our herd is thriving and we’re producing top quality, sought after beef.”
The Gilheanys started by buying a few reared, organic Dexter and Irish Moiled cattle and then rented a Dexter bull for breeding.
Having herd of the delicious flavouring and appealing properties of both Dexter and Irish Moiled beef, the family tried it for themselves.
“Over the next couple of years, we sent some of our cattle to the local butcher and kept the meat for ourselves.
It tasted amazing and we instantly knew there would be a market if we sold it as we hadn’t seen it for sale locally before,” says Tom.
Last summer, Jack, Tom and James took the plunge and began retailing their beef, straight from their farm.
“We built up a good relationship with local butcher, Kevin Heery, who owns a certified organic abattoir just thirty minutes from our farm.
He does everything for us and by using this system we can ensure that our meat is fully traceable and incurs only short food miles,” says Jack.
The brothers say the distinct marbling found in the meat from both of their chosen breeds results in enhanced flavour, juiciness and tenderness.
“The spider marbling found in Dexter meat is not found in typical continental breeds. It’s also higher in good fats and Omega 3.
“Irish Moiled or ‘Moilie’ beef has also been said to be the best marbled beef available on the market.
An increasing number of butchers and restaurants are beginning to look for Irish Moiled beef, again, because of its gorgeous marbling and healthy properties,” says Jack.
The cattle on the Gilheanys farm are slaughtered on, or just before 24 months.
"The meat is hung for 28 days before being packaged. The butcher packages the meat and labels it with the labels we provide him with,” says James.
“Each label must contain a number of different pieces of information such as the batch number, licence number, our herd number, the pack date and the use by date.”
The brother’s meat is packed in cardboard boxes containing gel ice packs and lined with food liners.
This helps keep the contents of the box below 5° for up to 48 hours.
“It ensures we meet all health and safety regulations and that our meat is delivered to the customer totally fresh,” says James.
“It’s a cost-effective way for now. We had to bulk buy the liners though which was a bit of an investment initially, but this system has been working well for us.”
The Gilheanys began selling their beef boxes online seven months ago, providing free nationwide delivery.
They provide varying box options ranging in weight from 5kg to 20kg.
“We do beef selection boxes which include roasts, stewing meat, steaks, burgers and mince. We also do steak boxes and burger boxes and a mix of the two.
“We try to provide as much versatility as possible because all of our meat is premium quality and can be cooked in so many different ways and used in so many dishes,” says Jack.
“It’s great to get our business name out there and gain recognition for these two native Irish breeds of cattle. We hope to only increase our market from here on out,” says James.
The brothers’ cattle are completely grass-fed and don’t get any meal, thriving solely off the Leitrim landscape.
“We’re currently in the process of our two-year conversion period to organic. We’ve been farming organically anyway so gaining certification won’t mean a big change for us,” says Tom.
“We don’t regularly dose, we only give treatment as necessary, we have extremely high animal welfare standards and we adhere to all the farming practices required in organic farming.”
What level of start up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
It took up to 5,000 to get the business started. Our main costs were buying the organic Dexter cattle to get us up and running and buying the packaging materials such as the icepacks and the liners.
Was financing readily available from the banks for this business?
There are business grants available for farm start up businesses but it’s not an avenue we went down. All three of us had savings from work we’d done over summers, so we jointly invested some of this.
Was grant aid available?
We got a TVO (Trading Online Voucher) from the Local Enterprise Office. We didn’t look into any other form of grant aid for the business.
How long did it take to get your business off the ground?
We had been planning for six months before we launched. Even at that we are still adapting and perfecting certain aspects. It’s still a work in progress as we work to garner more customers.
Are you required to obtain any licences for your business?
We are registered with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) as we are a food production business and we are in the process of gaining our organic certification too.
How did you know you would have a market for your product?
Organic produce is ever growing in popularity around the country and with the onset of the pandemic, we knew that people were in the market for local produce with shorter supply chains. We knew we had a premium product, so we wanted to test it out with the general population and when we did, we got a great response.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge has been managing our lead times with the beef. Given the shelf life of beef, it’s imperative we get our product out to customers in a timely manner. Sometimes there’s a 3-4-week lead time of when a customer orders their beef to when they receive it, because of the fact the beef has to be mature.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is thinking of diversifying their farm, what would it be?
Ensure you know your customer base and what they’re looking for. Once you know that, you need to do everything you can to give them what they want.