'You're as lucky as a black cat," Tipperary beef farmer John Commins was told by his wife a few weeks ago when the country was basking in perfect barbeque weather as he prepared for the launch of his beef sausages in Aldi stores nationwide.
"They went on the shelves as 9am in Thurles, and they were sold out at 10 past - and that's when the phones started hopping," says John.
A suckler farmer based near Two Mile Borris, John finishes and sells all his own beef though his Blackcastle Farm business and recently got the opportunity to take part in the Aldi Grow programme which saw over 75 Irish-made products go on sale in Aldi stores nationwide.
Among them was John's Piedmontese Beef Sausages - but John's story started in the same vein as many of the country's suckler farmers and was a long way from a high-profile retail product launch.
"I left school at 15 after my father fell into poor health and I was suckling here making no money, same as any suckler farmer if they are honest with you," he says.
However, reading an article on the Italian Piedmontese beef breed set him on a journey he had never expected to take.
"I read the article in 2005 and rang the [Piedmontese] Society in Ireland. They happened to be organising a trip to Italy and I went along with my father-in-law," he says.
Following the trip, he invested in some Piedmontese breeding stock with the idea that he might take advantage of the lucrative market at the time for export-grade weanlings.
"Exporting quality weanlings to Italy was all the rage then and we got this brainwave that we would breed what they want, the Piedmontese, and we would sell them back to them."
However, it didn't go exactly according to plan.
"We hit a problem fairly quickly in that we just didn't have enough numbers for them to take it seriously. If I rang a customer over there he started laughing on the phone if I said I had 20 cattle - he wanted 500."
Another problem facing John was that factories here didn't want his cattle as they were too lean.
"They were E- and U-grade cattle with a massive kill-out percentage, but no matter where we turned no one wanted them," he says.
With no market for his cattle, in 2010 John decided along with another breeder to create one, with support from his local Leader enterprise board and UCC.
"We got the meat analysed in UCC, and it was 1pc fat, less than chicken or salmon. However, the key question was how does it taste? So UCC brought in a panel of professional tasters and across the board with other meats they preferred the Piedmontese. We knew we had something then," he says.
Yet after years of effort, John was still making no "real money" from the venture, and at this point his partner left the business; he continued alone.
"We were tipping away with the beef, not setting the world on fire, paying the wages and the mortgage. We won a Blas na Éireann award for pastrami and developed a HSE-approved kitchen to sell cooked foods," he says.
However, falling cattle prices put more pressure on the business.
"The meat factories started selling really cheap meat on the Irish market and that killed us because we were going into restaurants that were buying steaks of us for years and they were saying: 'There is a fella coming around here selling ribeye for €8/kg'. We couldn't compete."
Despite this, and on the advice of his wife who he describes as 'the brains of the operation', he persevered.
"She told me I needed to do value-added products so you can stay two steps ahead. Selling regular beef, we just haven't got the scale," he says.
It was at this point he started developing bresaola (air-dried and salted) beef and other cured products. Then at Christmas, John approached UCC to help with the development of a low-fat beef sausage.
"Everyone said to me beef sausages won't sell in Ireland. People were saying I'd have to put pork through them to give them flavour, but we weren't prepared to do that. Then you're just another sausage. Our USP is lean and healthy. It's 1pc fat, 15pc protein and it's tasty," he says.
"They (UCC) were superb and put in huge work and we decided to enter it in the Aldi Grow programme. We got to sell the product in every Aldi store (two weeks ago). They got 3,000 packets of sausages off us."
John has since secured another order from Aldi and the sausages will be back on the shelves on June 13.
On the back of the success, he has big ambitions for the business.
He wants to set up a co-op where other Piedmontese breeders can sell him their cattle and he can pay them a premium price
"That's the whole reason I went on this journey," he says. "I just think it's so wrong that beef farmers work so hard and they are just getting nowhere. As it is, it's a race to the bottom."
'Farmers are getting kicked about – they are being led down the road of mass production’
Selling your own beef is not for the faint-hearted, but John Commins is adamant that not making changes or looking for new opportunities is as big a risk for suckler farmers.
“People told me: ‘John, you’re a great man, you took a big gamble with the business’, (but) I took no gamble at all. The guy taking the gamble is the guy that’s not changing,” he says.
“He’s going to get the same result he’s always got and his future is not going to change.”
John says the future of the beef industry lies in quality, not quantity.
“I think farmers are getting kicked asunder because their product is viewed as just a commodity. They are being led down the road of mass production,” he says.
He believes Irish beef farmers would be much better off if they had half the number of cattle, but got twice the price for products that can be marketed as really sustainable.
“We need fewer cattle and to get way more money for them.”
Sustainability is a key part of the business and the farm’s ethos.
“I’m not organic, but I’m not far off it. I haven’t cut a hedgerow here for 10 to 12 years. We make all hay. It suits the Piedmontese better as they like a dry diet and the hare and the pheasant gets to nest if you’re doing hay,” he says.
In terms of management, John says good stockmanship is critical with the Piedmontese breed.
“We made all the mistakes and we learned the hard way,” he says, noting that the cattle take “looking after”.
“They don’t have the fat reserves of other breeds so they don’t take hardship well.
“When I had Limousin cows and Belgian Blue I used to slacken off the diet close to calving, so the calf wouldn’t get too big. That’s a disaster with this breed — they cannot go through a stage in their lives at all where they don’t have enough to eat. They can melt on you overnight.”
John has 80 pure-bred Piedmontese cows and finishes off grass as much as possible — heifers and bulls at 18 months.
“Initially we had bulls going into massive carcass weights around 450kg, but as we found out they were too heavy. The striploins were too big and we couldn’t sell them. A 350-380kg carcass is what I’m after now,” he says.
The lack of information farmers receive on what the customer is demanding is a real shame, John says.
“Before I went into this business, when I was selling cattle to the factory I wouldn’t care where they went to as long as I got paid,” he says.
“There is no connection between the producer and the consumer. It was a massive learning curve for me when all of a sudden I had the consumer in front of me.”
Over the years, he has learned that carcass weight the most important factor.
“It’s all about saleable meat for me.”
And he believes farmers should be paid on saleable meat yield rather than carcase weight.
It’s all about more muscle. “Muscle is meat, if you have a 350kg carcass killing out at 80pc that’s 280kg of saleable meat.”
That is far more beneficial for the farmer than heavier cattle with less meat yield, he says, “but that is no good if they’re not paid for it”.