Ciara Flavin, the first woman to graduate from her butchering course, explains how she got into a male-dominated trade, and why her model of raising heifers for slaughter gives her shop an advantage over the supermarkets
Breaking the mould in the male world of butchering, 24-year-old Ciara Flavin has become the first female graduate of the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland-certified training course
The Limerick woman is also among the minority of butchers to have hands on involvement in the day-to-day rearing, feeding and slaughtering of the beef animals she serves over the counter to the customers.
“The farming gives me more control over the production of the quality and type of beef that the customers want, which is a great benefit to the business,” she says.
Ciara, the eldest of three daughters on the family-run livestock farm at Grange, near Bruff, says: “My father was bringing us out around the farm from a very young age. I always had an interest in the farm and the animals and what was going on around the farm.
“When I was in school, all I ever wanted to do was to go on and do the Green Cert. From a young age that was predominantly my only interest.”
After getting that Green Cert at the Salesian Agricultural College at Pallaskenry, she returned to become the fourth generation on the family farm.
Between 150 and 200 heifers are carried throughout the year, with younger animals coming in to replace those being taken out for slaughtered each week to supply the family-owned butcher shop at Castletroy, in Limerick city.
There is usually a mix of breeds on the farm, including Hereford, Angus, Charolais, Limousin and Simmental.
More than a quarter of century ago, her father Jim opened the butcher’s shop in Limerick and gradually moved to producing heifers for the business on the farm.
“Growing up I was always familiar with the shop, and throughout my teenage years, I developed more of an interest in butchering,” says Ciara.
“From around the age of 13 during school holidays or weekends, I helped my dad in the shop.”
She started by doing some of the simple things, and quickly picked up skills.
“My father was a great tutor to me and I also got a lot of help and advice from my aunt, Carmel Fitzgerald, who has been helping out in the shop for more than 20 years,” she says.
Over recent years, for health reasons, Jim has had to ease back on his involvement with the farm and the shop. Ciara has stepped up to fill the void.
Around 14 heifers per week are needed to supply the shop. Slaughtering is contracted to a nearby abattoir. The carcases are hung for 30 days at the Flavins’ premises at Annacotty before being broken down for the shop.
“At present I am buying in the heifers at about six months and bringing them to slaughter weight mainly off grass before being put on a mix of maize, meal, barley, sugar beet, silage, hay and straw for the final month before slaughter,” says Ciara.
“I find that they are finishing good at 16-17 months. The Angus will finish earlier but sometimes they are inclined to put on more fat, and that is not what most of our clients are looking for. We have customers who want Angus but not the fat.
“I am going for a carcase of about 350kg and my preference would be for the Charolais because they have a higher meat yield.
“I find that the continentals are the best, but we also kill Hereford and Angus, because some customers are looking for them, but the traditional breeds can be over-fat more easily than the continentals.”
The shop is close to three large supermarkets, so there is intense competition for customers.
“I feel that it’s an advantage finishing our own animals, and with our own boning hall,” says Ciara.
“There is definitely no comparison with beef that is hung for 30 days. I have seen over the years that it is more tender and has a better flavour.”
Having experimented with buying in stock at the calf stage and rearing them on milk replacer, Ciara feels that the benefit of a suckled calf was lacking. She is considering a suckler Charolais herd.
At the retail level, she has added online selling to the well-established direct-selling service, and is using social media for promotion, targeting the younger clients.
She is selling quick-cook and ready meals, having identified an increasing demand from people who want to spend less time cooking a meal.
“I would like to see our product available more nationwide and in years to come like to open more shops and do more branding on the name,” she says.
Expanding the business to serve the hotel and catering trade is also on the menu.
“While the average consumer is looking for smaller cuts of beef, the hotels and restaurants buy the larger cuts and that will suit our business because we have the opportunity to take the cattle to whatever weight we want on the farm before slaughtering,” Ciara says.
Her father’s interest in the business is as sharp as ever, and most days he spends some time in the shop —he loves meeting and chatting to the customers.
Ciara has two younger sisters: Claire is doing her Leaving Cert and showing a lot of interest in farming, while Jane is studying for a business degree at University of Limerick, following in the footsteps of her mother Suzanne, who does the books for the farm and shop.
Ciara Flavin has been credited with helping turn the tide for women in the butchering trade.
Julie Cahill, national programme manager of the National Craft Butchery Apprenticeship Course, says: “Ciara was our first female apprentice and now graduate, a fantastic ambassador for the butchery apprenticeship programme, her shop and the trade.
“Our female participation rate has grown over the last three years to 13pc.”
The course, run by the Mayo Sligo Leitrim Education and Training Board ( mayosligoleitrim.etb.ie) at Ashtown Food Research Centre, Dublin culminates in a QQI Level 5 Certificate in Craft Butchery initiated by the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland.
Normally a two-year qualification, Covid-19 intervened for Ciara and her course was spread over three years.
The programme combines on-the-job training in the workplace with classroom-based, academic modules including practical meat cutting, manufacturing meat products, entrepreneurial skills, food safety and hygiene, customer service and marketing.