Mastering the goatmeat market
For three brothers in the Cole family, it is not the size of the farm but what you do with it. Barbara Collins visits a goat farm in County Antrim to find out more.
Charlie Cole has always wanted to work on the land, but with just 17 hectares (48 acres) on the north coast of Ireland and two other brothers to consider, conventional farming was not going to cut the mustard.
His mother Millie and father Robin bought the house and land in 2002 after spending years travelling, although Millie is originally from the area. Charlie and Sandy were at boarding school in England, but have now returned to work full-time on the farm. Freddie, the yougest brother, is still at school in Belfast.
After Charlie trained in land management at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, the original plan was to go into land agency, but after having worked on various estates, he saw the potential in making a return out of small parcels of land.
He says: “We had to think outside the box. We went through options such as paintballing and adventure sports, but I had always wanted to be a farmer.
“We decided the best way would be through processing ourselves and perhaps adding value to products which were slightly different and had a unique selling point.
“This is when we started brainstorming wild boar. We still have our hearts set on wild boar but we don’t think we could set up Jurassic Park here quite yet. So we went with mum’s idea of goats.
“The basic concept behind the business is there are five commercial dairy farms in Northern Ireland all producing milk but nobody was doing anything with the billy kids. They were all being killed at birth so I went off and bought 30 to start with and hand-reared them to killing weight.
“Mum wanted some pet goats, but when I came home with 30 she agreed to my business idea of rearing them for meat.”
Jurassic Park it may not be, but there are plenty of animals roaming around. Apart from the 160 goats, which Charlie says are not breed-specific, there are free-range chickens, ducks, geese and veal calves. Add seaweed, herbs and vegetables and there is plenty going on at Broughgammon Farm with the potential to explore the opportunities even further.
The kids are kept inside a white plastic polytunnel which Charlie says is cheaper than building a traditional barn and keeps them clean, happy and drug-free.
“Since they haven’t been reared by their mothers and did not get colostrum at an early age, their immune systems are very low so it is important to keep them in a controlled environment.
“Unfortunately with goats, there are no world experts on them. With lambs you can go to any vet in the country and they can come up with a vaccination programme and get them sorted and put them straight out.”
Younger brother Sandy recalls watching Charlie filling out the form last year for transporting live animals and goats were not on there.
Sandy says: “They just crossed out sheep and wrote goat and this was his official paperwork which he had to give it to the police and everything.”
Charlie adds: “When I first started out, I phoned up the department and asked them where I could get goats slaughtered and the girl on the other end of the phone laughed at me and I had to tell her I was being serious.”
Selling food directly to the public includes the usual paraphernalia which comes with it. In the room where we have a cup of tea there are various receptacles as well as weighing scales and price lists for kid kebabs, billy burgers and fresh meat.
It seems the Northern Irish public have really taken to goatmeat, but how did the Cole brothers get to the point where they are able to do two weekly events selling their hot goat produce?
Charlie says: “We took the first lot of meat down to the pub during Tennis Week and the Auld Lammas Fair and it all sold out. We realised we could possibly make a living out of it, so we got more and started doing the farmers’ markets.”
They offered tasters to tempt people to buy the fresh meat, but demand was so great, they soon realised they would need much more stock to get a regular trade going. So far this year, the Coles have processed 160 billy kids and hope to reach the 300 mark by the end of the year.
Their mother Millie has proved to have a quite a knack for butchery and she does most of it at the house since gaining special permission from Environmental Health.
The family uses shoulder meat for kid kebabs and billy burgers but burritos are the current hot seller. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute is looking into using the loins for brisaola.
Sandy is particularly championing the latest gourmet offering – a cabrito burrito – which is proving a hit with the public.
He says: “I love burritos so much. I worked for two days in a burrito bar outside college just so I could eat them. Ours have an amazing tomato and red pepper salsa and tzatziki. They’re to die for.
“We are going to build an on-site butchery and farm shop. Then we will have the space to really see what we can do with this delicious meat.”
Charlie is also serious about extracting as much value out of the animals as possible and has plans to utilise the skins.
He says: “At the moment, we are trying to get a by-product hanging licence to allow the product to be sorted back on the farm and then sent to England for tanning. Unfortunately, there are no tanneries left in Ireland, so we are using the next closest which is in down in Devon.
“The idea is to get them back and some will go towards rugs and handbags. A friend of ours who is a tweed designer wants them and we will also sell directly to the public. There is a vast demand and it is obviously very sustainable.”
But it isn’t just goats which are sold from the farm. Living on the north coast, there is obviously a rich supply of seaweed.
Having received permission to gather it from the Crown Estates, they built a special drying house. Whatever they gather is put in to dry. This seaweed has made its way into their daily bread and the family are planning to put it in their burger buns.
With two events most weekends, the Cole family are busy people, but they are not neglecting the development of their business. Sandy is working on packaging because he does not want them to be known only for meat.
He says: “Our marketing scheme for Broughgammon Farm is not really all-encompassing yet, so we have to work on a label which allows us to grow and diversify as much as possible.”
It is clear the whole family are passionate about what they do, but are they managing to make a living in this tough economic climate?
Charlie says: “If we can get the right ratio of events to sales, our profits are handsome. But we have to cut out four different middle men to make this happen, so there is a lot of hard work which goes into it. It is not all about the money though and is really self-satisfying work.
“It is great to have a kid come on to the farm which was destined for the incinerator and be able to hand rear him for six months and give him a purpose in life.
“You see them growing up and there are some serious characters among them. For every bunch of 30 there are always three who are absolute heroes.”
- Seaweed harvesting has been commonplace for centuries in and around Britain’s coastlines
- Locally to the North Antrim coast, seaweed was typically harvested as a fertiliser and food source, and has been recorded to have been done so far back as the 12th Century by local monks
- Interest in seaweed is rekindling as scientists uncover further health benefits which have even led to it being referred to as a superfood
- Broughgammon set about establishing the seacrop wing of the farm business and aims to sustainably harvest seaweed for wholesale into food and the cosmetic and wholesale markets
- Artificial goat milk replacer is bought-in from Denmark which retails at about £45 per 25kg bag
- Goats are being trial-fed lamb pellets from four weeks old as they are £50 cheaper a ton
- Billy kids are hand-reared in barns using a five-teat apparatus, which measures how much they are drinking so it can be made sure every goat is getting enough
- Two nanny goats are reared outside on grass and Super lamb creep
- Amount of milk replacer used at peak in February is 250kg a week
- Cost to rear animal to slaughter weight of 40kg is £100
- Profit on fresh meat sales, 30 per cent; wholesale retail, 50 per cent; cooked food at events, more than 50 per cent but requires serious commitment of time and capital expenditure