21 June 2002

Huge potential for a premium quality product

By John Burns

South-west correspondent

QUALITY beef has massive potential for a profitable future, believes a Devon-based master butcher who is working with local producers to develop high value outlets.

Steve Turton is prepared to develop outlets for beef – providing producers work with him and produce what his customers will pay a premium for. "I want to meet people who really want to have a go," he says.

He plans to develop business within the sector of the catering trade which will pay a premium for a product which offers extra quality and service. "I aim to hit that market with a product which is perceived to be better than what is currently available. Traceable meat of top quality which will command a premium.

"We are looking at the hanging and cutting of meat and the way specific customers want it cut and packaged. And the word Devon – which is a good brand in itself – will be prominent in the story behind the meat."

Local chef Michael Caines is a good example of the sort of customer he will work with. Mr Caines is among the top 10 chefs in Britain and frequently champions high quality local food. The two hotels serve different sectors and so have different requirements.

That is why it is essential for Mr Turton to work closely with him, listen to his feedback and take him to the farms where his meat is produced.

Mr Turton is already working with local producers Edwin and Jilly Greed to source meat of the desired specification. The Greeds run Fortescue Farm, a 200ha (500-acre) half arable, half grass unit at Thorverton, Exeter. Grassland, mainly permanent meadows, is largely grazed by South Devon suckler cows and calves. A second herd of Blonde dAquitaines is also kept, primarily to produce breeding bulls for sale.

Blonde heifers not required for breeding have one summer at grass before being finished out of yards at about 700kg. They go to a butcher in Somerset who specialises in that breed and the Greeds work closely with him to ensure they meet his specification.

Other cattle go to St Merryn Meat in Cornwall, where they achieve premium grades and then disappear into supermarkets.

The Greeds regret there is no effective link between the farm and supermarket shoppers, so Mrs Greeds next mission is "to be part of an ethical mainstream supermarket producer group and develop a top-of-the-range regional premium beef brand, where everyone involved in the food chain benefits financially".

But when they expanded their suckled beef production, the Greeds chose South Devons because they are docile and suitable for fields with public footpaths, have good length and growth rates. The Fortescue South Devons were bought as a complete herd of in-calf cows, and followers in 1999.

These South Devons cows crossed with Blonde bulls produce just what Mr Turton wants – long carcasses with a good loin and backend. He now buys some of these crossbreds from them.

"A few years ago we would have looked mainly at the back ends, but caterers now just want rumps, ribs and fillets. Above all, we want long cattle with a good loin," says Mr Turton.

"South Devons yield quite tight meat." As well as achieving the required degree of marbling, without excessive external carcass fat cover, their docility means they are relatively unstressed when slaughtered, another plus point for meat quality.

A further plus point for the Greeds is that South Devon cows are proving cheaper to keep than the Blondes, which need some corn as well as grass.

Mr Turton is keen for chefs to visit farms supplying their meat and for producers to visit the abattoir to see the carcasses they produce. That suits the Greeds because they are keen to identify cows and bulls which deliver the required quality.

"If we find a certain bull, type of cow or feeding system is giving better results, as assessed by Mr Turton and his customers, then we will try by breeding or feeding to get others to the same standard," says Mrs Greed. Visiting chefs also leave with a clear picture of contented cattle grazing lush pastures. &#42

Edwin and Joy Greed are keen to supply butcher Steve Turton (right) with beef of the spec he wants to sell at high value, ensuring a good return for evryone in the supply chain.

A South Devon x Blonde dAquitaine calf has a long carcass with a good loin.

&#8226 Expanding catering market.

&#8226 Buyers have tight spec.

&#8226 Producers need to react.