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Gerry Giggins: Why craft butchers are a vital link in raising the bar for beef production

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Wagyu beef

Wagyu beef

Wagyu beef

I made my first venture into the world of online shopping during lockdown. The product I was attempting to purchase was close to my heart: an assorted steak pack.

It is great to see the number of farms and small food producers that have established new initiatives and are now trading their produce online directly to market.

Any step made towards reducing food miles and establishing direct links with the final consumer can only be a positive for Irish farming.

Peter Callaghan, my local craft butcher in Ardee, Co Louth, had operated a successful text and collect system over the past few years, and he expanded this service to include delivery during lockdown.

Sourcing beef, lamb, pork and poultry from local farms, craft butchers play a key role in the sustainability of Irish agriculture.

While the craft butcher sector may not have the same scale and buying power as other retailers, they will regularly offer a better end price to the producer. During the Covid-19 outbreak, many butchers have reported a welcome upswing in demand.

I went all out with my online purchase and bought a Wagyu steak box of fresh meat from Ridgeway Wagyu in Donard, Co Wicklow.

John and Michelle Hourigan run a Wagyu calf-to-beef system. They started finishing Wagyu-bred steers and heifers for over three years after importing semen from a leading Japanese breeder based in Australia.

Calves are produced on a number of selected breeding farms throughout the country, with a strong emphasis on the use of Angus dams.

Cattle are grazed for the majority of their lifetime with a slow growing and finishing period essential to achieve the Wagyu breed's maximum marbling characteristics.

During their finishing period, the forage used is high-quality haylage. It is not desirable to feed grass silage as its low pH will impact on marbling quality. Pressed olives, chocolate, a specifically formulated cereal grain blend, minerals and vitamins are also part of the finishing diet.

Massage and beer

Famously, Wagyu cattle in Japan are massaged on a daily basis and fed saki or beer, but the Hourigans haven't included these practices just yet!

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the restaurant trade was their largest market, but the lockdown necessitated the move to online trading and direct home deliveries.

The husband-and-wife team have separate responsibilities, with John overseeing farming and processing, while Michelle looks after marketing and online retail.

Numerous businesses in the hospitality sector throughout the country have seen the benefit of farm-to-fork supply in recent years.

Restaurants and hotels appreciate the quality, consistency and traceability offered by using fresh produce delivered directly from farms.

This resonates strongly with customers, who embrace the story of local food.

In the south-east, two great exponents of this concept are Redmond Farms in Wexford and the Butcher Restaurant in Kilkenny city.

The Redmond bothers operate a beef, cereal grain and vegetable farm in conjunction with their Ashdown Park and Amber Springs hotels. Farm produce is directly supplied to the kitchens of both hotels.

An Angus cross calf-to-beef system is operated on the farm, with up 500 heifer calves purchased annually. Heifers can be finished off grass or from the shed depending on the hotels requirements, time of year, weather conditions etc.

The Redmonds won a silver medal at the 2019 World Steak Challenge.

The Butcher Restaurant is operated by Mark Williams, who also runs a suckler beef enterprise alongside a pedigree Hereford herd at nearby Thomastown. The farm also grows cereal grains and has a sheep flock.

Butcher restaurant was opened in August 2018 and has become a favourite on the city's food scene. While the restaurant closed during Covid-19, Mark has been amazed by the appetite for their online beef sales and is looking forward to re-opening in July.

Having sampled beef from all of the above producers, I can certainly testify to the quality of their produce. I look forward to continuing to support these and other businesses that are deeply rooted in local agriculture.

Indo Farming