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HomeBeefHow these suckler farmers are ‘cutting out the middleman’
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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How these suckler farmers are ‘cutting out the middleman’

In this week’s Farmer Focus, That’s Farming, speaks to the Alexanders of Ballyboley Dexters about their venture into the breed twelve years ago, new genetics, 25-month-old calving and agricultural shows.

Ballyboley Dexters’ Pasture For Life Certification sets the Alexanders apart from many other beef producers.

The status has added another string to the family’s Dexter beef farm to fork initiative in recent years.

They sell between 1-2 animals directly to consumers monthly and cite a 100% pasture-based diet as one of their beef’s unique selling points.

According to the family, they do not feed their cattle any grain, soya or concentrates. Instead, “cattle thrive on a varied diet and enjoy browsing hedgerows”.

Furthermore, they do not utilise any pesticides but use mixed herbal lays to ensure a varied pasture diet. They partake in conservation grazing schemes on their own land as well as National Trust ground.

Their beef recently featured on the Great British Menu with “fantastic reviews” from Two-Star Michelin chef, Daniel Clifford, who stated: ‘The quality of the beef was outstanding’.

Ballyboley Dexters, Dexter cattle, suckler farming, suckler cows

Sowing the seeds

The Alexanders ventured into Dexter cattle to satisfy their desire to farm with nature and execute regenerative farming techniques.

The Ballyboley, Greyabbey, Co Down natives acquired two in-calf heifers in 2009 and have grown their herd to 32 pedigree breeding females since then.

Purchasing high-quality show standard foundation females has been core to developing Ballyboley Dexters over the past twelve years.

They have acquired several cows and heifers from the Ballykeel Dexter herd with bloodlines directly from the original BelleVue Zoo Dexter herd.

“Dexter cattle are a naturally hardy breed, and they graze outdoors all-year-round, so this suited us well,” Stephen, who farms with his wife, Lorraine, daughter, Hannah (28), son, Matthew (23) and youngest daughter, Naomi (18), told That’s Farming.

There was also an emerging showing scene for Dexters when we bought our first cattle back in 2009. This was great for us all to get involved in as a family.”

“We became aware of Dexters at the rare breeds show and sale at Folk and Transport Museum in the early 2000s. Both my wife’s grandparents and my grandparents farmed, but farming skipped our parent’s generation, so we have restarted farming within the family.”

Ballyboley Dexters, Dexter cattle, suckler farming, suckler cows

New genetics

The production of superior quality beef is a thorough process on the 60-acre farm, that begins with selective breeding decisions.

In the early days, they utilised AI; however, as the herd grew, they moved to having a stock bull.

Their current bull, Stargate Sultan, hails from an award-winning Dexter herd in Somerset, England. The bull previous to this was Windyknowe Pendragon, who they brought over from Scotland.

“Bringing new genetics into Northern Ireland has always been important to us. We tend to calve all year round; however, this year, we are planning to hold the bull back from the cows so we can move calving to April to September every year.”

Ballyboley Dexters, Dexter cattle, suckler farming, suckler cows

Why Dexters?

“Dexters are an easy calving breed, and we find that spring and summer calving is more natural for our Dexters. We like to have a range of Dexters, including show standard short Dexters, which tend to perform better in the show ring and non-short for our Dexter Beef production.”

“Short steers range from 150kg deadweight to non-short at 220kg. We always like to use a non-short Dexter Bull. Dexters are a dual-purpose breed with good milky cows producing thrifty calves.”

“Farmers originally bred cows to produce enough milk for a family and leave a calf that could be sold or reared into a beef animal. These cattle thrive on marginal poorer pastures and being good converters of this poorer pasture.”

25-month-old calving and up to 10 calvings

The family keep all progeny within the herd and have retained heifers as replacements over the years to expand.

“We will put heifers to the bull from 16 months of age – depending on their size. Dexters come as short or non-shorts. We may let some of the short animals got to the bull at a slightly older age if we think they are particularly small.”

“We have a lot of interest from people wishing to purchase Ballyboley animals. Therefore, we plan to start selling some breeding stock to other Dexter breeders in the future.”

They keep all male calves as bullocks, rearing these to around 30-36 months of age before slaughtering and selling direct to consumers.

In their view, a long-lived functional-type cow producing one calf annually is the cornerstone of their suckler enterprise’s success.

Their culling policy is “agile” in the sense that as long as “a cow is producing offspring with no obvious welfare problems”, they will continue to calve her down.

“If a cow has undesirable traits such as not conforming to breed standard, poor mothering instincts or temperament-related issues, we will not breed from them.”

“These have been observed by us passing through in genetics. These animals will be fattened and culled. We feel it is imperative that we give cows a long and happy life, culling only when necessary.”

“We meet the one calf per cow per year target, and Dexters have a long life with animals calving up to 10 times.”

Ballyboley Dexters, Dexter cattle, suckler farming, suckler cows

Cutting out the middleman

Attention to detail is crucial for the family, who aim to make their produce special. They claim their customer base is passionate about how they farm and the ways their farming methods help the environment.

“Personally, one of our key elements is having the ability to sell directly from farm to fork, cutting out the middleman.”

“The pandemic stopped our attendance at local markets. However, it does seem to have helped with a shift in consumer’s thinking. Many consumers want to purchase more locally and take thought in what they are buying.”

Ballyboley Dexters, Dexter cattle, suckler farming, suckler cows

Agricultural shows

The Covid-19 pandemic has, to date, also resulted in the cancellation of agricultural shows, which the family attend annually. They hope to make their return to Balmoral this September.

They are members of the Dexter Cattle Society and are involved in the affiliated NI Dexter Cattle Group at committee level. Their main goal as committee members is to promote the breed and help facilitate decisions that assist Dexter breeders within Northern Ireland.

The family has exhibited cattle with success over the years, with their progeny scooping from first to fifth prize in their respective classes.

They hope to continue promoting the breed and its beef as a premium local product into the future.

They believe “farmers need to produce a high-quality, desirable product and animal”.

“Whether for breeding or beef, it needs to achieve sustainable prices, ensuring the financial viability of the farm and the integrity of the breed.”

“We would like to continue our regenerative farming techniques and work in benefiting the environment and improving biodiversity.”

“Dexters are in high demand, so do demand a fair price. Quite frankly, we have allowed our herd to grow in size naturally. We are all extremely passionate about the Dexter breed and regenerative farming techniques. We believe that farming with the environment is the future,” Stephen concluded.

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