Galloway Beef Production on Dartmoor
Rearing Galloway Cattle and producing saleable tasty beef as an end product has very
different challenges and methods of production in different parts of the UK. Anton Coaker in his own words ‘ekes out a meagre living farming and sawmilling in the rain on Dartmoor’. He breeds hardy Blackface sheep, Dartmoor ponies, Belts, Whites and Riggit Galloways. Anton has written about his observations and experiences of beef production in the harsh Dartmoor environment. He has over 20 years experience with ‘home kills’ for direct retail through ‘boxed beef’ sales.

The Mainstream

Because Belted Galloways, and their Black, Riggit and White cousins, seldom meet increasingly tight supermarket abattoir specifications on weights and conformation and when raised on rough pasture can be deemed ‘too old’ by slaughter, they are often perceived as 2nd class carcases in the main stream. In reality, as most of us have found out, their eating qualities are in a league of their own. Never mind their lower cost of production, or that they’ll thrive in tougher environments than most modern, ‘developed’ breeds, often fattening off pasture alone, or the benefits of such self-reliant beasts, which mostly just ‘get on with it’ themselves. The comments from someone first sampling well butchered Galloway beef are usually all the endorsement you could ask.

It’s a bittersweet irony that we’ve been brainwashed all these years by the mainstream, to chase certain weights and shapes, at the expense of cattle which will thrive easily and produce beef which is succulent. The shape thing is just about yield, with the goal being a carcase which has less waste at slaughter, and a better ‘meat to bone’ ratio. And the ‘target weight’ business is ostensibly about uniformity, allowing speedy ‘idiot proof’ slaughter lines. The reality of course is that the yield of saleable beef isn’t much different, and the whole business is really just a stick to beat us with. Like ‘farm assurance’, it’s an idea sold as a way of attracting a premium, but somehow gets turned round to become another load of barnacles fouling your hull.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have found a traditional fattener/butcher, who places a higher value of eating quality, than that extra kilo of chewy garbage. If you have….give him my phone number.

Selling it yourself

Meanwhile, many of us have our steers slaughtered for our own consumption and for direct retail through ‘boxed beef’ sales. And it’s this latter which we’re going to address. I’ve been having ‘home kills’ for about 20 years, being blessed with a sensible local butcher 10 miles down the road, who built a new plant just when we were starting to look into the business. And this is the first stumbling block. You’ll need a regulation compliant killing plant within easy reach, or the logistics become a bother. Better still if the same premises can cut and pack for you, although the rules aren’t quite as onerous for a cutting and packing site, and it is often feasible to move chilled carcases from the abattoir to a cutting plant if needs be.

I’m not going to discuss killing and hanging stock ‘round the back of the yard’. Obviously, humans managed well enough for thousands of years without refrigerated plants and stainless steel surfaces, but if you’re hoping to sell your neatly packaged Beltie beef, probably better let professionals deal with it for you.

So you’ve contacted someone who can kill your steer, hang it for 3 weeks or so –too short a hanging period and it won’t eat as well, too long and it’ll be losing weight and be getting plenty ‘mature’ enough by the time you’ve got it to your customers. We’ll take it as read for a moment that you’ve got cutting and packing organised. Now what you’ve got to find is customers. Before you drop that bullock into the abattoir, you’ve got to consider how you’re going to shift £1500-2000, or more, worth of beef. Because, trust me on this, nothing will test your jovial sunny persona more than having that beef sitting around unsold, getting warm.

You’ll have to find your own way of working, but the way we do it is to email round out existing customer base to establish demand –although nowadays, we’re confident and established well enough to knock over the beast first. Once we’ve an idea of who’s wanting what, and have worked out the potential yield from the carcase weight, we can plan the distribution round. We have it vac-packed in freezer friendly packs, and labelled and priced, before we ever touch it. Then we collect in big insulated cool boxes –originally sourced from a camping gear outlet – and distribute everything we possibly can immediately. Once the fresh sales are taken care of, anything left unsold is brought home and frozen down in a commercial freezer.

Be aware that there are myriad rules and regs on the subject, and you’ll have to find out for yourself just what’s required, and what the rules are. A rule of thumb is that you need to keep that beef as cool as possible, in clean containers, and into the customers fridge or freezer ASAP. The nuts and bolts of it is that enzymes are working at the meat all the time, and the warmer it is, the more active they are. They are essential to make he eat tender…. but only up to a point.

How to price?

Some people will only sell ‘mixed eighths’ for a lump sum, letting their butcher divide the cuts up, and sparing them any arguments. Others price individual cuts appropriately. Some charge a very high price overall, working on the premise that theirs is a premier product, others pitch it cheap enough to shift it easily.

We sell at one (pretty cheap) price per kilo for mixed orders, and balance those orders from long experience. Unsurprisingly, every chancer wants all the fillet, but none of the shin.

This means we can supply quite small orders, and can put together a £30-40 pack for those who don’t have a spare freezer sat empty. If you’re doing it this way, the trick is knowing carcase balance to ensure everyone is treated fairly.

Depending on how your butcher has cut your beast, the basics are that your saleable meat will split something along the lines of

• 10% steaks
• 40% joints
• 25% stewing/chuck
• 25% mince

It can be varied a bit, bearing in mind that customers are more inclined to want burgers and steaks in the summer, and might want more stews and roasting joints in the winter. But as long as you can keep orders within those basic parameters, you don’t have to worry about order size, or pricing individual cuts.

What will it yield?

While we very seldom weigh a beast before he goes in, you can assume half of his live
weight is in his guts, feet and head. It’s the carcase weight we work off, phoning once he’s hung. We kill steers off a very impoverished gorse covered newtake –hardly the optimum fattening ground, but it’s what we have. Hence, we’re typically working with 220 kilo carcases. The yield of saleable beef from our carcases is almost always right in 65% of hung weight. After all expenses –and don’t forget to factor in your time and effort- we’re generally left with between £850-1000 for our hairy little bullocks. We pitch the beef cheap enough so it’s easy to sell (in a community already heavily populated with beef farmers), but there’s no doubt that you can take those steers to far greater weights on a better diet, and could likely charge more for the product. It’s not unheard of to be clearing £2000 after expenses, and that’s not to be sneezed at.

Taking it further?

I’ve kept the above at the most basic level. Some of us have gone further down this road, selling at ‘Farmers Markets’ and the like, or opening a farm shop. A half-way stage might be to wholesale your sides of beef into the high-end catering/deli trade etc. But be warned, there are pitfalls everywhere, with additional regulations, extra time commitments and expenses with the former. And unless you’re very lucky, the latter might soon have you struggling to avoid bad payers.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a go, and try selling your Beltie beef. It’s a premium product, and will almost sell itself!

Anton Coaker English Timber Ltd
Sherberton Farm
Yelverton Devon
PL20 6SF
Tel 01364 631276

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