Something special is stirring in Glaslough, Co Monaghan. First we had national and international recognition for the Tidy Towns movement. And this trend of local people enhancing place for both community and nature is spreading into the fields beyond the village where two young farmers have recently been nominated for a coveted Farming for Nature award.
The Farm at Drumsheeny
Conor and Sorcha McPhillips are relatively new to farming. They still work full time in biomedical science and the charity sector. Though Conor’s family have had 13 acres of grassland for over thirty years, the majority of time it’s been in conacre to various farmers seeking extra grazing. Over the course of a few years Conor undertook, on his weekends off from working in Galway or Donegal, to start tidying up the land, while simultaneously renovating his roadside cottage, with a view to moving home and farming in the future. The couple spent time researching livestock and decided that Dexter cattle would be best suited to their land and would provide the family with exceptionally tasty beef. The Dexter cattle are a traditional breed which can stay outside all winter without difficulty. The breed are small and hardy and renowned for their ability to forage and thrive on a wide range of pastures.
When the opportunity arose three years ago to move home permanently, they applied for a herd number and bought their first two Dexter heifers. Though it would be relatively easy to just jump in and take on a larger herd, they were keen to take their time to get to know the breed, stockproof the land in a manner sensitive to wildlife and slowly build up a farming system which would promote and protect biodiversity while rearing high welfare, quality beef. Over the past three years Conor has been acquiring machinery, fencing, managing hedgerows, installed a wildlife pond surrounded by game cover, peripheries of fields have been planted with trees and sown with wildflowers to provide feed for birds in winter. A riparian zone has been planted with trees to protect the permanent watercourse that runs along the farm. Despite the obsessions with straight lines and “tidiness” that exists on some farms, Conor and Sorcha have purposely chosen to leave the thick and mature hedgerows around the land, only cutting back small sections where necessary to install adequate fencing. The large hedgerows provide useful shelter and forage for their cattle in the winter months when cold winds cut through the fields.
Farming for Nature
Of course, to the trained eye, the diversity of flora and fauna, the lack of uniformity in grasses and hedgelines, the way the land expresses itself is where the true beauty lies, not in “man made concepts” of neatness. Hawthorne, blackthorn, elder (or boor tree to some Monaghonians) as well as ash, bramble, hazel and honeysuckle coexist along the hedge lines meaning there’s nearly always something flowering or in berry, in the warmer months. Elsewhere on the farm, Conor has been using his grandas Massey Ferguson 135 to mow and ted their own non certified organic hay. In July a contractor comes in to bale. Cutting hay in July ensures time for ground nesting birds to rear their young and provides an important source of food for insects, small mammals and birds during the summer months. No chemicals are used on the land and the couple require minimal externals inputs bar what runs the machinery. Conor uses the tractor for topping rushes and thistle while they hand pick the odd ragwort that stretches up its neck. They have not resown the land and are trying to encourage the natural seed bank to germinate thus ensuring diversity in the sward. Closer to the house, Sorcha has been busy growing fruit and vegetables using permaculture techniques, planting hundreds of pollinator friendly bulbs and shrubs on their lands and managing the roadside by hand thinning out anything that become too prolific to encourage a diversity of growth. Upcycling and thriftiness are cornerstones of their gardening systems. Pallets, tyres, and other commonly discarded items find a useful role in their growing operations. There is a big focus on minimising waste both in their household and on the farm.
The Meat Boxes
Currently Conor and Sorcha get the Dexter at around a year old from Pat McKenna, a local Dexter farmer and breeder who shares their same farming ethos. They rear them on for approximately 18 months. Their deliberately low stocking rates mean they can avoid routine dosing of animals with chemicals – regularly rotating the cattle to fresh pastures and avoiding the hygiene issues that can occur when cattle are housed for long periods in the winter months help in maintaining optimum health. All beef produced from their docile Dexters is butchered locally by the Conaty family who have a small purpose built abattoir which is used primarily to slaughter for his own shop. The process is that the animal is inspected on site by the county vet before slaughter (to ensure no health issues) and the meat is hung and aged for 21 days. Martin Conaty expertly butchers the beef to Sorcha’s specifications, then the produce is immediately packed to ensure freshness and apart from labeling is ready to be sold directly to local customers. The sale of meat boxes provides welcome farm income which is reinvested into the operation. This year the couple hope to process four Dexter for sale and orders can be placed directly (contact details provided below). Sorcha is researching other home compostable alternatives to vacuum packing to reduce the reliance on single use plastics but for now it’s a proven and reliable method for ensuring freshness. The couple acknowledge that organising butchering locally and selling direct involves a lot of extra work that is avoided by sending cattle to the factory however this is where their philosophy shines through – they want to stay local with all growing, butchering and selling and their route to market achieves this. This type of local operation is where we need to get to as a society if we are interested in true environmental sustainability.
Understanding different farming systems
Most Irish farms use an intensive beef production method. Fields are sown primarily in rye grass which is very high yielding, animals graze the grass over summer months and are fed silage in sheds over the winter. The grass growth is optimised using chemical fertilizers and farmyard slurry while broadcast spraying of pesticides keep any unwanted species at bay. On top of this, mixed grain concentrates are fed
to the animals throughout their life cycle and much more intensively over a period of 100 days to ‘finish’ the beef for slaughter. Conor and Sorcha have specifically chosen not to go down the ‘traditional’ intensive route of monoculture fields and fattening their cattle with imported grains. They are using their own mixed species pastures and saved hay to ensure their animals remain nourished and healthy all year. This system is essentially what’s referred to as “pasture fed” beef and amounts to the gold standard in meat and dairy production from the perspective of animal welfare, human health and environment protection.
By contrast ‘grassfed’, which is becoming a more recognised term, generally refers to feeding animals a monoculture of intensive rye grass which simply isn’t as beneficial environmentally or nutritionally. It’s worth noting that many commonly used animal concentrates, even those produced locally, rely on ingredients from up to 14 different countries in each mix. These include grains that are often intensively grown in countries with less environmental regulations than our own and are then shipped around the world. It certainly isn’t the most environmentally friendly way to produce beef and as the price of grains continues to spiral many farmers will certainly seek alternatives. Pature-fed certification is a concept which is growing across the UK but there hasn’t been much of a push for it as of yet in Ireland, though it has the potential to greatly reduce the carbon footprint of meat production. The couple are currently exploring the logistics and benefits of seeking organic certification. While they already farming organically the certification process is slightly cumbersome and may not justify the effort involved. So far customers are
also not specifically asking for “organic” certification. One challenge of organic certification is that everything in the system must be organic, your land, your stock, your feed and your practices. At present the couple make a mix of 1kg of oats and 1kg of mixed grains, every second day which is used to ‘rattle the bucket’, as a lure to encourage the cattle and enable them to be handled safely when essentials
movements or inspections are necessary. Organic feeds are increasingly expensive and often involve a substantial carbon footprint. The volume of pellet feed currently shared between their animals has a neglible impact nutritionally, however they are keen to find a more sustainable alternative and Sorcha is researching the potential to produce their own hay pellets.
Funding and Innovation
It is encouraging to see that a small, homegrown enterprise like Drumsheeny Dexter has received support from Monaghan Local Enterprise Office who have paired them with the team at Salesplus, based in Smithboro, to provide business advice and mentorship. Another successful application in the LEO system is the Green for Micro business grant which will pay for an environmental consultant to come and survey
the farm, conduct a carbon assessment and identify possible sustainability improvements.
The couple recently got the good news that their application to LEADER for funding to assist with the development of a purpose-built unit to pack and store their beef on their farm has been successful. This will allow the Drumsheeny Dexter business, which is HSE registered, to grow and make packaging, labelling, storing and dispatching of produce easier. In the coming years the couple intend to sensitively increase their stocking levels and potentially diversify by adding lamb or pork and even possibly selling surplus fruit, vegetables, flowers and eggs. That said, they intend to remain small and flexible and have no ambition to take on extra acres, simply to create the best possible products while maintaining true to their goal of optimal sustainability. As German economist Ernest F, Schumacher said “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”
Official Launch of Drumsheeny Dexter
The couple have just launched their beef box business, joining forces with other local food producers to create a Prize of the Ultimate Gourmet Burger box. The prize includes six handcrafted 8oz pure, lean, Dexter steak burgers accompanied by chef Val O’Kellys homemade Subh Fraoc Bán relish, mustard and sauces, tangly pickled pink onions from Seany McCleary of Blasta Streetfood, a variety of fresh organic
salad and creamy cheese from the team at The Local, Glaslough Street, all to go inside fresh baked baps from Dinkins bakery. Tempted?? To enter check out their social media on Facebook and Instagram (search Drumsheeny Dexter).
For orders or enquiries email email@example.com
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