That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Sorcha McPhillips, of Drumsheeny Dexter in Glaslough, County Monaghan, in this week’s Farmer Focus segment. They tell us about farming pasture-fed Irish Dexter cattle and selling beef directly.
“I run Drumsheeny Dexter with my husband, Conor, in County Monaghan, on a part-time basis.
We are first-generation farmers, having acquired our herd number three years ago, although the land has been in family ownership, having been in conacre for years before we took it over.
Conor bought a cottage near his family home in Glaslough and spent a few years slowly renovating it himself bit by bit in between studying and working away.
Over time, he noticed how neglected the surrounding lands were and decided that when he got the chance to move home permanently, he would take over their management instead of them being leased to other farmers.
While we were working and loving in other parts of the country, we spent time learning about how to become ‘new farmers’.
My background is in human rights law, and I have always had an interest in horticulture.
Conor is a medical scientist with a focus on microbiology and would have helped out neighbouring farmers in his youth before heading off to college.
While we can see the value in completing an agricultural qualification, for us working full-time, raising a family and starting to work on the land simply meant there was no time to commit.
Although we were under 40 when we started farming, there was also no possibility of completing the Green Cert in sufficient time to meet the then Young Farmers’ Scheme criteria.
We farm a maximum of 10 Dexter cattle across 14-acres. We were living in Donegal at the time and attended a food fair where two fantastic ladies were cooking their own Dexter beef.
The meat was delicious and uniquely flavoured to anything we had tried before.
We started researching the breed, so from there, we started down a rabbit hole and discovered that Dexter would be perfectly suited to our land.
We have a fairly small farm in the fields surrounding our cottage and figured that smaller fields would best suit smaller animals.
Moreover, we always had an interest in rare breed conservation and had considered Galway sheep before we stumbled on those Dexter burgers.
The breed is dual purpose, producing good yields of both milk and beef, supposedly easily managed, are great mothers and being smaller, they require less grazing and are lighter underfoot.
The main thing for us, though, was the beef, and the fact that they are so hardy meant that they could be overwintered.
We have a strong focus on regenerative agriculture, so our cattle are on pasture 24/7, 365 days a year, with lots of room to roam and forage and no need for any medicine.
We started by contacting the Dexter Society, which directed us to a local farmer from whom we bought two yearling heifers.
Being newbies, we wanted to familiarise ourselves with the breed before we were responsible for caring for too many animals and allowing Conor time to continue stock-proofing the land.
Once we had our first animal slaughtered, butchered and tasted, we decided to develop a paddock-to-plate beef enterprise – delivering premium pasture-fed Dexter beef boxes to local customers.
We considered breeding but determined that we did not have enough land to sustain a suckler herd.
Instead, we source cattle at around 12-16 months and finish them completely on pasture over the course of 12-18 months.
It is a much slower process than more commercially driven enterprises, but our emphasis is on quality, not quantity, and we work with the animal to naturally mature, which we feel adds to the flavour and texture of our beef.
2022 was our launch with our to test the market and see if it was a runner, with four animals slaughtered and butchered, and we hope to sell 8-10 cattle per year.
Over the course of the last few months of my maternity leave with our second daughter, I developed branding, social media, a 5-year business plan and undertook various food safety and online business development courses.
Our objective is to produce the tastiest, most tender, high-welfare beef using sustainable farming practices that encourage biodiversity and soil regeneration.
Dexter has been referred to as the Irish Wagyu – renowned for its spider-like marbling that melts in your mouth.
Our cattle graze our mixed species sward, forage our hedgerows and are supplemented with our own hay/haylage overwinter in the field.
Conor delivers the animal to a small throughput abattoir 10km away run by a family of farming butchers. Once slaughtered, the animal is hung for 21 days.
During this period, I undertake presales of mixed-cut beef boxes 5kg, 10kg, or our gourmet burger boxes.
By the time I go back to the abattoir, I will have a precise list of all of the cuts I need, as well as packaging and labels prepared.
Then, I work side by side with our craft butcher, Martin, and he cuts while I weigh and package each piece of beef.
The flavour and tenderness of the beef are exceptional, but there is also a feel-good factor with our meat.
We are not driven by profit; rather, we are working with the land and our animals to produce ethically reared beef of the highest quality while trying to have a positive impact on the environment.
It is definitely harder as a small business in the agro-food sector to be eco-friendly. For example, the issues and increased cost in sourcing completely biodegradable packaging and labels but for us.
It is important that every aspect of our farm is as environmentally sensitive as possible.
Field to fork
Having been awarded a LEADER grant, we are in the process of installing a purpose-built unit on our farm as a storage and prep area for our beef.
Essentially, we retain full control and oversight of our product from field to fork. We can choose when and how much beef to sell and work around the animals rather than feeling under pressure to meet external targets.
We can pre-sell our beef to reduce the potential for wastage, and, to date, we have sold out and have built up a waiting list.
As a small business, you also have the potential to be price setters rather than being at the mercy of factory prices.
Although we have been approached by high-end hotels, it would not be practical or as profitable for us to supply the hospitality industry, where there would be a demand for only certain cuts.
We also prefer to deal directly with consumers and get their feedback.
There will always be a market for premium, local produce, especially as people become more conscious of food security and quality.
We never intend to expand our business significantly – the idea is to work within the scope of the land that we have and to continue to do so in a regenerative way which limits the stocking rate.
Moreover, we intend to continue to improve biodiversity and increase habitat on our land.
We recently planted a couple of hundred native Irish trees and hedging with plans to install more nesting boxes and duck tubes along our stream.
I can usually be found rooting in the soil, planting or sowing something while Conor is working on the structural bits or maintaining machinery.
Further down the line, we may experiment with a small number of sheep or pigs.”
To share your story, email – [email protected]