By Debbie James

On the edge of the Preseli Hills, Brian and Eiryth Thomas rely on the grass and home-grown forage that Pembrokeshire grows so well to rear and finish progeny from their 40-cow suckler herd.

The combination of their non-intensive system and a breed revered for the quality of its meat should return a price premium but this was not the case when they sold their cattle direct to abattoirs and through livestock markets.

“We were getting paid a commodity price for what is an exceptional product,’’ says Brian.

His system for producing beef at Llwyncelyn Lan, Llanfyrnach, is one shared by fellow beef shorthorn breeders, Hywel and Emma Evans, and mother and son, Alma and Anthony James.

The Jameses also farm in Pembrokeshire while Hywel and Emma are in neighbouring Ceredigion; it was this geographical proximity that first galvanised the three families into taking action to improve their income from cattle sales.

The three united under the umbrella of Farming Connect’s Agrisgôp, a development programme that brings together individuals and families to progress business ideas.

Under the guidance of facilitator Lilwen Joynson, they formed the Welsh Shorthorn Beef Company to sell meat in boxes direct to the public.

Their initiative has paid off as, at current prices, they are returning an average margin of £250 on each beast sold through the company.

“The company will pay the current grid price plus 20p/kg,’’ Brian explains.

The money that the company earns from each animal, over and above the payment to the farmer, is reinvested in marketing.

The group’s next step is to increase monthly sales above the current two animals by supplying butchers.

“For a butcher to have consistent and guaranteed quality, it must be worth a premium,’’ Brian suggests.

His pedigree Frenni herd calves from January through to March with calves weaned in November. They are housed on silage and a small amount of homegrown barley and turned out to grass in April.

Heifers are fattened off grass to finish at 18-20 months at 280-300kg; steers are housed for their second autumn and fed 2.5kg of barley a day to achieve a finishing weight of 350kg.

Up until 2018 the Thomas’ sold all their progeny as stores or breeding stock, until bovine TB cast its dark shadow on the herd and brought sales to a standstill.

Alma and Anthony found themselves in a similar situation.

“We were producing females for breeding but TB closed that sales stream down overnight,’’ says Anthony, who runs 35 suckler cows in the Lambro herd at Lamboro Farm, Clarbeston Road.

“When we had our first breakdown, we didn’t have any cattle fat and ready to sell which meant no income from the beef business for a year. That made life very difficult because we were selling youngstock as stores.’’

One option he explored was to become a supplier to the Morrisons Beef Shorthorn Scheme; he got as far as registering but didn’t progress down this route because it was too costly to transport his cattle from Pembrokeshire to the north of England.

“By the time we paid to haul cattle from Pembrokeshire to the north of England it wasn’t worth our while, we would have needed 40 cattle on the lorry to make it pay,’’ says Anthony.

He saw Hywel’s idea of marketing directly to the customer as a way forward.

“We thought we would give it a go and see what came of it, we went in with an open mind,’’ he says.

Agrisgôp facilitated the process of getting the company up and running.

Lilwen arranged for the farmers to visit meat packers and organised meetings with experts in marketing and branding and in the logistics of producing and distributing beef boxes.

As individuals, the farmers wouldn’t have had a sufficient supply of cattle to satisfy the needs of a boxed scheme but as a group they could meet that demand.

“As a group we are currently supplying at least two beasts into the boxed beef business a month,’’ says Hywel, who ran his own joinery business before retiring to farm at Penparc near Cardigan.

The group’s market research, led by Hywel and Emma’s daughter, Rebecca Andrew, who is the group’s secretary and administrator, indicated a demand for high quality boxed beef.

“The shorthorn is not an intensively farmed animal, it is bred for grazing, so we wanted to concentrate on the taste and quality of the meat, to get away from the concept of beef as a commodity product,’’ Hywel explains.

Cattle were initially slaughtered at Tregaron or Cross Hands abattoirs but with the re-opening of the Pembrokeshire Abattoir at Haverfordwest in December 2019 that job can be done closer to home and has reduced costs by around £40 an animal.

Carcasses are delivered to Fishguard butcher Martin Lloyd and hung for 21 days before they are butchered and the cuts divided among the boxes.

The consistency of rearing and finishing cattle on all three farms in the group is important.

The value of that consistency must not be under-estimated, Brian insists.

“As we prepare to leave the EU the methods that we use to produce our beef will be very important.

“Consistency is a weakness we must address to strengthen our position in the market post-Brexit.’’