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'Farmers are getting kicked about - they are being led down the road of mass production'

Farm diversification: John Commins

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Lean operation: John has been breeding Piedmontese cattle for 15 years - the breed produces low fat, high protein beef

Lean operation: John has been breeding Piedmontese cattle for 15 years - the breed produces low fat, high protein beef

Lean operation: John has been breeding Piedmontese cattle for 15 years - the breed produces low fat, high protein beef

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.

Stockmanship

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".

Indo Farming