In this week’s Suckler Farmer Focus, That’s Farming speaks to Clive Bright of the Rare Ruminare certified organic farm in Ballymote, Co Sligo. He gives insight into his 100% grass-fed beef operation and how he is transforming the farm into a self-sustaining ecological ‘wonder’.
Clive inherited the family farm from his mother in 2003. His great-grandfather bought the enterprise for Clive’s grandfather to lure him back from Australia, where he served in the army.
Clive lives on the farm with his wife, Shelley, and their two young children.
The property spans 120-acres of owned land of varying quality, whilst he rents about 40-acres of neighbouring land.
The latter is not intensely farmed and is used periodically, for instance, to leave the cattle to range when the Bright family takes their summer holidays.
Clive received his Green Cert just before he inherited the farm and acquired his herd number in 2003. The farm operated as a small dairy farm with about 30 cows when Clive, a new full-time farmer, took it over.
“Dairying at that scale was hard work with little profit. So I bred out of the dairy herd with AI Shorthorn bulls to build the foundations of a suckler herd,” he told That’s Farming.
“Then, I ran a Limousin stock bull and produced weanling calves for the conventional market for a while.”
“However, I soon realised that the farm was not near its full economic potential as a conventional suckler operation and in 2010, I started the shift towards organic beef farming.”
Clive says the main reason for the move towards organic was to make the farm profitable, although environmental considerations also played a significant role.
“Early in the shift towards organic, it was not easy to find good advice. I had no real mentors, only friends with smaller properties doing quite intense subsistence farming, which did not scale up to my acreage.”
“Reading about holistic management agricultural methods gave him the confidence to take the plunge.”
The farm became certified with the Organic Trust three years later, in May 2013. Clive is also a Farming for Nature ambassador, a Pasture for Life Association member, and heavily involved in the recently established Irish Agroforestry Forum.
“I wanted to cast off the shackles of what had become the norm in farming. I was looking for ways to cut costs, so I started to question every input, was it needed, and if so, why?”
“If you strip everything away, farming should be about harnessing the resources we already have. The land owned and free energy source – the sun. And how to best manage the plants and animals in between.”
The push towards a 100% pasture-fed herd happened early on. This was driven by the high price of organic grain, which would have made the operation uneconomical.
Hence, Clive focused his attention on better grazing management to improve the quality of the pastures. He also started selecting genetics within the herd that was most adapted to the land and suited to grass finishing.
“Cutting out grain feeding was easier than I thought it would be. I stopped feeding grain and culled the animals that did not suit the system ferociously.
“Moreover, the animals that thrived on a grass-only diet were nurtured carefully. This quickly led to a super low input system.”
A mix of traditional breeds
Rare Ruminare uses a mix of traditional breeds such as Hereford, Shorthorn, Irish Moiled and Angus. Genetics are improved with carefully chosen stock bulls, with the current one being a Red Belted Galloway.
Clive says the reason for mixing the breeds is a constant search for naturally adapted animals to thrive in the farm’s local environment.
“I have no loyalty to any breed; I strive to find the right type within breeds. Ultimately I am looking for low maintenance, easy-fleshing, medium-sized animals.”
Although growing up on a dairy farm gave Clive a good eye in assessing a decent dairy animal, he had to start from scratch in evaluating suitable beef cattle.
However, he says he was fortunate in that Gerry Burns from Burns Meats – a small family-run abattoir and butcher in Grange in north Sligo – was very helpful in giving feedback and advice on the animals he brought in.
“Observing an animal from birth through to the carcass and then tasting the meat’s quality is a rare opportunity. Gerry has a lifetime of experience as a farmer and butcher; he was very generous with his time and knowledge.”
“With his help, I was able to acquire the ability to judge an animal and know what will work and whatnot quite quickly.”
According to Clive, the key to herd health is not selecting for single traits.
“I am interested in a very average balanced looking cow. Extraordinary animals are genetic freaks, and breeding for extraordinary traits will lead to unbalance.”
“Rather than selecting for traits, the best way to achieve balanced animals is to have a set of goals that cows have to achieve.”
“They must calve on their own, and they must rear and wean their calves on their own every year. If they do not achieve all that, I will cull them.”
“Although it may sound simple and a little harsh, it encompasses a lot, including fertility, calving ability, maternal traits, good milk, good legs, etc.”
Clive says one eventually ends up with a “super” healthy herd that requires little intervention and very few vet bills.
The farm currently has 24 suckler cows and a herd size of 60-80 animals. He has a relatively low stocking rate of just under one livestock unit per hectare.
“It is sustainable at this level. However, I will probably drop it down some more as my eventual goal is full year-round grazing with no housing.”
The farm’s cows generally weigh around 500-550 kg. He typically culls heavier cows unless they are performing well.
Clive says he works towards getting the animals finished off grass at about 25 – 30 months. The target weight is 600kgs with a deadweight of around 310kgs with carcasses left to hang for three weeks.
All the calving happens outside from the second week in May.
“We moved away from calving in the shed. No matter how clean and well-bedded your winter housing is, it will still be a filthy maternity ward.
“The only natural place to calve is outside where the sun sterilises the ground daily.”
Holistic planned grazing method
Much of Rare Ruminare’s success can be attributed to utilising holistic planned grazing.
As the name suggests, it is a planned and monitored grazing rotation between paddocks. It focuses on shorter grazing periods in smaller areas allowing for a more extended recovery period.
The main objective is to ensure the full recovery of grass before returning to a paddock. It mirrors the natural herding behaviour of animals with predator pressure.
The recovered grass is longer and allows for the better use of the sun’s energy through photosynthesis which results in a stronger and more established root system.
In turn, this enables improved water filtration with less risk of flooding and more resilience during dry spells.
“Generally, the farm’s shortest rotation is about 30 days in mid-summer. This means that I generally move cattle twice a day between the farm’s 60 paddocks.”
“In autumn, the rotation is extended to moving them once a day, but this is adjusted depending on the grass growth rate. The rule is the faster the grass growth, the faster you rotate.”
“Because I am striving for year-round grazing, I have half the cattle out this winter on a 160-day rotation to try and achieve it with a smaller group.”
“They started the winter rotation in October, and by the third week in April, they will be back where they started.”
The farm’s main remaining input cost is making silage and hay for winter housing, which is the only reason they still need a tractor.
“If I succeed in eliminating the need for winter housing, I will have no input costs and also will not need a tractor.”
Clive says he aims to farm within the natural capacity of the land. This involves grazing and management decisions that will improve the water and mineral cycle so that the land and the farming operation can eventually be self-sustaining.
Selling meat direct
He sells all beef, including some rosé veal, directly to the customer. Clive says he mostly receives orders via email and social media, i.e. Instagram and Facebook.
Furthermore, demand mostly surpasses what he can supply.
“I have been fortunate; selling direct has been almost effortless. Media publicity in the papers and on TV, as well as speaking at conferences, has given me enough exposure that I haven’t had to use traditional advertising.”
Commenting on the main benefits of selling direct, Clive says it gives him complete control of the whole process and that he is a price setter rather than a price taker.
“Even without the direct selling, I would still do okay on the farm. The key message is that I actually am winning twice.”
“I make a profit because of the low input costs, but on top of that, selling direct allows me to have a good standard of living. It is a relatively small farm on marginal land, and I am still making a decent living.”
He sells beef all-year-round for €280 per 20kg box, which equates to €14/kg. Local delivery is free with a charge of €20 for nationwide delivery.
Last year, the farm prepared 14 animals for sale as beef boxes. About 90% of the sold meat is from bullocks. Generally, the best heifers are kept for breeding to continually improve the herds’s genetics and the flavour profile of the beef.
According to Clive, their pasture-fed beef “has a depth of flavour that you will struggle to find elsewhere”.
“My breeding has been quite intense. I have had a high turnover of animals to get the herd closer to where I want it to be. Any heifers that are not good enough are generally culled quite early.”
Rare Ruminare rosé veal is from animals that are not best suited for finished beef. They are high maintenance type animals that are at their optimum at 6-8 months after weaning and are fat from protein-rich milk.
Clive says high welfare, pasture-raised, rosé veal is a “beautifully sweet and delicate meat”.
Looking to the future, Clive says he has a great interest in Irish Moiled cattle.
“It is by far the best-tasting beef I have ever had. We ran an Irish Moiled bull here, and I plan to get another one after the Galloway and breed back and forth between Irish Moiled and Galloways. That is if I can find one that is the right type.”
“They are known for being a slow maturing breed, and that is maybe one of the reasons why they are not that popular.”
“It can take up to 3 years to finish an animal properly. Then, it is still relatively small with a carcass weight of 260kg or 280kg.”
“The time it takes to finish an Irish Moiled bullock plus the yield you get is relatively low. However, I think people are missing the point.”
“Because it is a smaller animal, you can keep three for every two of an Angus with the same resources. And more importantly, that extra time means extra flavour.”
In the future, the biggest change for Rare Ruminare involves an increased focus on Agroforestry.
“I think the farmed landscape and certainly the grazing land needs more trees. Silvopasture is the future, especially on marginal land like my own.
“The natural successional vegetation would include a lot more woody species. I want to mimic that in a designed way that suits the farming operation.”
“Our farm has heavy clay ground that is very vulnerable to compaction and rushes.”
“Trees in the right places will help to improve soil health, water infiltration, and enhance the mineral cycle. It will also assist with the rush problem on the farm.”
“Rushes are an indicator of ecologic stagnation – anywhere where there are trees, there are no rushes.”
The trees will also create a more stable microclimate for the livestock, providing shelter and shade and access with mineral-rich leaves for the animals to browse on.
“Woodland pasture was the natural habitat for the ancestors of all domestic livestock; silvopasture is a way to recreate that in the farmed landscape.”
Making the switch to organics
For those interested in switching to organic farming, Clive says it has to start with looking at how you farm and questioning everything.
“If your farming operation is difficult and requires a lot of input and labour, ask why that is? Because when working in a natural environment with a semi-natural farming system, it should be easy and almost happen on its own.”
“If there is hardship, then it is likely you are fighting against nature. You are never going to win over the long term, and it is always going to be an uphill battle.”
“I strive to make my farming leisurely. Apart from the big annual tasks like harvesting hay or silage, most days, I do not spend much more than 20 – 30 minutes on the essential daily jobs of tending to the animals.”
“I take several holidays in the summer, spend a lot of time with my family, and generally, my quality of life is high.”
“Additionally, the empowerment that comes from knowing you are producing top-quality food and at the same time are bettering the natural environment is so rewarding.”
To share your story like that of Rare Ruminare, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming, – [email protected]
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