When Conor Sheahan took over the family farm in 2012, he continued with the dairy enterprise which had been in place for a generation.
But by 2018, he had had enough of being “tied to the farm”, and “never being able to switch off” and decided it was time to get out.
Three years later, he is producing some of the most expensive beef in the world, alongside farming his traditional suckler herd at Finnow Farm, Millstreet, Co Cork.
“I’d been farming in some way since 1994 but when I took over fully, I found that the dairy industry was changing,” he says.
“I had to keep increasing and increasing stock numbers every year and I couldn’t get any help. I was over-worked.
“It was becoming like slave labour, and I thought, ‘if you’ve a problem that you can put in a trailer and get rid of it, do it’. So that’s what I did.”
Conor had stocked a variety of breeds over the years, from Belgian Blues to Speckle Parks.
“I love diversity and I wanted to add value to the farm too,” he says.
Ten years ago, he decided to add another more exotic breed: he sourced three Wagyu embryos from an Irish supplier and inseminated three of his white-head cows.
One of the three turned out to be viable and in 2013, Conor’s first Wagyu bull was born. He now farms a herd of 80 of the rare Japanese breed on his 240ac mixed grassland and mountain farm.
“I remember the day our first bull was born,” says Conor. “There were three vets in the village and all three of them came to my farm to see the new Wagyu calf.”
Back then, he says he was the only farmer in the country to keep Wagyus.
“Most people hadn’t even heard of Wagyu cattle so there wasn’t really anyone to turn to for advice. I had done a lot of research, though, and knew how they should be looked after,” he says.
Wagyu cattle are prized for their distinctive marbled meat.
“It’s a premium product worldwide,” Conor says. “The meat is naturally succulent and extremely tender in comparison to ‘regular’ beef.
“It’s full of good, low-cholesterol fat. The Japanese barely heat it before consumption. It’s very easy to digest so they say it’s ideally served rare.”
In Japan, farmers massage the animals, believing this aids the development of the marbling. Conor is slightly sceptical, but has installed an electric brush which massages his cattle daily.
“They line up to get brushed,” he says. “It’s in their heritage, they love it.
“I’m not sure whether it’s the massaging that helps make the meat so tender or whether it’s the fact that the animals live such a happy and relaxed life. Having a daily massage or two would make anyone more content!”
Wagyus require a slightly different and more expensive diet than other beef cattle.
“With regular beef cattle, you have to feed a high-protein diet to growing animals and a high-energy diet to animals you’re finishing, but not the two together,” explains Conor.
“With Wagyu cattle you must feed them a diet of both high protein and high energy, so it makes rearing them that bit more expensive.
“So you need to be getting more money for the meat, but unfortunately we don’t seem to be getting paid that higher price here in Ireland, as of yet anyway.”
Conor balances the cost of rearing the animals by making grass their main protein source.
“I try to keep them out on grass as long as possible. I then give them meal from our local mill.”
Last year, Conor made his first sales after approaching various butchers.
“It’s not a familiar product to the Irish consumer so the market for it hasn’t yet evolved as I hope it will,” he says.
“I had to persuade butchers to take it on board that time, but now several high-class butchers have contacted me and are very interested.”
Conor says he had his first batch of meat ready at the wrong time as the pandemic hit.
“I’d planned on approaching restaurants and hotels as I know chefs will realise the quality of the product but they all closed with lockdown. It’s still an avenue I hope to pursue, though,” he says.
Conor has decided to sell directly to the consumer.
“I approached a local processor who agreed to take my cattle. We will then jointly arrange the meat into cuts, and I’ll sell it in beef boxes,” he says.
“That way I’m cutting out the middle-man and maximising profit.
“The price farmers are being paid for their meat in this country is a disgrace.”
Conor is going to start with just steaks and burgers, but plans to include a range of cuts as he builds up his customer base
“Just getting people to try it will be the challenge,” he says. “Once you taste it, you’ll realise the difference there is between Wagyu and regular beef.”
Being one of the only Wagyu breeders in the country, Conor has found it difficult to expand his herd.
“I got in touch with John Ridgeway from Ridgeway Wagyu in Wicklow, and he came down to me with some Wagyu semen,” he says.
“I wanted to ensure that my genetics were of the best quality and John helped massively with that. There’s very few of us in Ireland doing Wagyu and we all know how hard it is.”
Conor artificially inseminated 21 cows and 20 of them are now in calf as a result. This means he is well on his way to having full-bred Wagyu on his farm.
“When these cows calve, I will have ¾-bred Wagyu. They’ll be beauties,” he says. “Wagyu grow to be massive so they’re visually very different.”
Conor keeps his animals for 30 months, at which point they weigh around 650kg.
“As they say, the best timber grows slow. I’d say to anyone who is thinking of getting into Wagyu, you have to have time. They’re not a breed that you’re going to get a fast return from,” he says.
He castrates all male calves at three weeks old because testosterone is allowed to form in their systems, it has a negative effect on the marbling of the meat.
Conor’s beef hangs for just 14 days to tenderise it, rather than 21 for regular beef.
“Hanging for 14 days helps to tenderise it without affecting the beautiful marbling. If it’s hung for 21 days, the marbling is destroyed,” he says.
He says the healthy fat produced in the meat is of superior quality to other cooking lards and oils.
“It’s a good fat and is low in cholesterol,” he says. “It adds a fantastic and unique flavour to any dish and it’s of premium quality. I believe if the general population tried it, they’d never go back.”
Conor says that despite keeping a breed renowned for their expensive, high-quality meat, he is not in it for the money, but for the love of farming.
“I’m a farmer, not a dealer, and I’ve learned there’s a big difference.”