Selling Angus beef direct

From slaughterman to butcher to showman, Duncan Jeary’s working portfolio continues to expand beyond the farm gate. Setting up a farm shop to sell his Aberdeen-Angus beef direct to the public is the latest step for his farming enterprise, started from scratch 10 years ago. CLEMMIE GLEESON reports.

Farmer, butcher and showman adds another venture

Being made redundant from his job as a slaughterman was a turning point for Duncan Jeary. In 2000, he heard the sad news that the abattoir where he worked in Norfolk had caught fire. Although his employers initially intended to rebuild, it was decided after six months that it wasn’t viable to do so.

But he already had plans of what he would do next. While waiting for the abattoir to be rebuilt he had been kept busy helping Aberdeen-Angus breeders Kate and Trevor Stebbings with their herd.

A local Galloway breeder also asked for his help showing cattle at the Royal Norfolk Show and the two experiences inspired him.

Prior to the redundancy, he had kept commercial cattle of his own but the allure of the showring alongside his belief that Aberdeen-Angus were a very marketable breed led him to sell his commercial stock and start his Briston herd of Angus, which eventually became a full-time occupation.

Duncan is not originally from a farming background but became interested in agriculture while at school when he began helping out at a local farm and then started fattening his own pigs to sell at market.

After school he trained and worked as a butcher for five years before becoming a slaughterman for seven years. With his butchery skills in tow, he knew from the start that he wanted to cut and market his home-produced beef himself.

While working for the Stebbings he set up a cutting room on their farm at Grimston to butcher their cattle and his commercial beasts. He continued to use this for his Aberdeen-Angus beef too, which he started selling at farmers’ markets. He now sells at seven markets each month and enjoys meeting his customers.

“The customers want to know where the meat has come from – price is less of an issue. Most are happy to pay a little more for local produce,” says Duncan, who is also trained in AI and recently gained his HGV licence to transport his own cattle.

He set up the Aberdeen-Angus herd with females bought from the Stebbings and sales at Salisbury and Carlisle, while he sourced his bulls from Perth. Since then he has steadily grown the herd, which now stands at 70 breeding females plus their offspring.

He also buys in around 30 pure breed Angus stores every year to supplement his own stock.

Duncan rents 180 acres of grassland plus 18 acres of arable land on which to grow maize and has the farmyard and some buildings at his home at Briston, near Holt, north Norfolk. The majority of the grass (120 acres) is on the Stody Estate and his tenancy also includes winter buildings for the cattle.

The grass on the estate is all in one block of adjoining fields, which makes moving the cattle simple, he says. As there are no other livestock farms in close proximity it also helps with the health status of the herd.

“We are part of the Norfolk and Suffolk BVD eradication scheme and have just had two clear tests,” he says.

The animals are housed over the winter months (until April 1) and fed on maize and chopped straw. Calving is in the first three months of the year plus a few autumn calves, which helps spread out the supply of meat across the year.

Duncan and his wife Tracey select their show team for the following year at weaning and those animals are then housed until the end of the show season and fed a small amount of concentrates to help them reach their potential.

“We are not big bag feeders, we basically try to feed from what we can source off the estate,” he says. “We grow our own maize, straw comes from the estate and we cut our own hay.”

Fortunately, due to varying soil conditions he was not forced to bring in his cattle during the summer downpours like so many other livestock producers.

“We have a mixture of land – we have wet meadows and light land, so in dry times we are alright and in wet times we are alright,” he says.

Having enough grass to keep the cattle moving on throughout the growing season also helps.

After Christmas, training starts for the show cattle, getting them used to being in stalls and being tied up and handled, says Duncan, who describes showing as a hobby as well as helping the business, although shows have to fit around the farmers’ markets.

Success in the showring in 2007 included inter-breed champion at Newark, breed champion at the Royal Norfolk and reserve breed champion at the Suffolk Show with five-year-old cow Briston Echo, that was shown with her heifer calf, Briston Esme, at foot.

This year’s potential show team consists of three heifers and two bulls. One of the heifers, that was born in mid-February, weighed 400kg at weaning at the end of November – the same as the biggest bull of the same age. “She is probably 60 to 70kg bigger at weaning that any of our other heifers,” he says.

“Although she is out of a small cow she was sired by our large stock bull, which was bred by Lord and Lady Glendyne.”

Although he does not usually choose large animals he chose the Hurdcott bull to bring more size to his herd. Put to the smaller females in the herd last year he has fathered some pleasing progeny, with his second crop of calves due early next year.

“I’m not a big fan of massive cattle, I like something middle-of-the-road size-wise, with good shape and a nice head.”

He weight records all the offspring on the farm at birth, weaning and again when they are turned out the following spring for estimated breeding values (EBVs), which aim to give potential purchasers an idea of an animal’s usefulness for breeding.

“If I was buying a bull I wouldn’t buy on EBVs alone, I buy on the parents. It should be down to the eye as you must have something that is appealing to you. But if I was making a split decision between two animals that look the same then I would consider EBVs,” says Duncan.

He keeps around 10 bull calves entire each year, chosen at birth and the bulls, which prove to be breeding potential, are sold off the farm. “We usually plan to take one to Perth each year but end up selling them locally.”

As for his stock bulls, he keeps them for two or three seasons before selling them on.

The animals are slaughtered approximately 18 miles away at 18 to 24 months of age and he aims for a 300kg beast (carcase weight). “If they are too big the joints start getting too big for our market,” he says.

He also supplies the East of England showground under its ‘Food Direct from the Farm’ scheme. The showground takes most things, including mince, joints to serve at its events and conferences, and buys around 25 per cent of his production.

The time came when he wanted to have his own cutting room at home at Briston. This idea soon grew to also becoming a small farm shop to sell beef, as well as eggs, turkeys, ducks and chickens which he now also produces on the farm. Work was completed this month and the shop opened in time for Christmas.

The plan is now to open the shop on Thursdays and Fridays while Duncan is doing his butchery and preparation for the weekend farmers’ markets.

At present Duncan and Tracey juggle all the work on the farm, in the shop and cutting room and at farmers’ markets between them, alongside caring for their 18-month old son Archie.

They have some help on the farm from Duncan’s father Keith, who recently took early retirement after working as a car mechanic for many years. Duncan believes it is now time to take on some extra help.

“The rewards are there when doing all the work yourself, but it is hard work. There are only so many hours in the day. I think we have got to the stage now where we should take on a butcher so that I can concentrate on looking after the cattle.

“Seventy cows and their offspring take a lot of looking after. I enjoy both the cattle side and the butchery side of the business, but would rather concentrate on the cattle if I had to choose.”

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