Food chain: Beefing up the Shorthorn brand

Native beef breeds, such as Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford, are an increasingly popular choice among consumers looking for quality, locally produced meat products.

But while consumers may be willing to buy into, and pay for, the heritage of such breeds, it is often difficult for this value to be passed back to the farm gate.

At least that’s the view of the English Farming & Food Partnerships‘ Andrew Loftus, who is helping set up a new premium market for Shorthorn beef in Yorkshire.

“Sell through an auction market and as soon as that trailer door drops, you’ve lost any premium on the history, provenance and traceability of the breed,” he says. “It’s all about marketability and making the consumer want to pay a premium for the brand in a way that can be passed back to the farmer.”

Despite the recession, Mr Loftus – also managing director of Weetons local food hall in Harrogate – is convinced consumers are still willing to pay extra for quality products. “The world isn’t as wealthy as it was a few months ago, but there’s still demand out there.” In the case of the pilot Yorkshire beef Shorthorn premium scheme, this added value will be passed back down the chain to producers, he says. “We’re basing our finished price on the Waitrose/Dovecote premium, which isn’t fixed, but is generally worth about 20p/kg above the market deadweight average.”

The scheme requires breeders to use a forage-based diet and provide animals to an agreed weight and age specification. Finishers must also follow a common forage-based finishing regime. It is hoped that this will guarantee a consistent quality, carcass grade (O, O+ and better, 3+ and better) and consistent carcass weight (e.g. 640kg liveweight). Eight cattle are being finished under the pilot scheme and will be due for slaughter late this month.

Future expansion

The first batch of eight Shorthorns in the pilot scheme is due to be slaughtered at about the end of February and will be prepared and dry aged for 21 days by butcher and food supplier Sykes House Farm near York.

Taste tests will be run and, if successful, Mr Loftus says the scheme will be rolled out further. “We’ve got to get the right feedback from customers. If we know they like it and want more, it will give our meat supplier the confidence to put in more orders and then we can start lining up the stock further down the chain. We’ve got to grow supply and demand together.”

Over the next 12 months, he would like to see 250 animals go through the scheme and is optimistic this can be achieved. So far about 30 herds, representing 600 breeding cattle, have registered an interest in the scheme, he notes.

Mr Loftus hopes to get the Shorthorn beef brand into supermarkets as a seasonal premium product available mainly from September to December. “One major retailer has already expressed an interest,” he says. A £40,000 marketing budget (40% grant funded) will be used to produce marketing material to help educate consumers about the brand and enable Sykes Farm to stimulate demand, he says. “We’ll also need a marketing campaign to raise consumer awareness, and we’ve applied to for a sizeable marketing grant to help do this.

“Native breeds are coming back. Aberdeen Angus has been leading the revival to date, but we want to make sure the Shorthorn is also part of it.”

The beef breeder

TURTONShorthorn breeder Gerald Turton of Upsall Castle near Thirsk is keen to supply the scheme if the pilot proves successful. The farm is calving 120 Shorthorns this year and is steeped in heritage, as it claims to have the oldest Shorthorn herd in England and Scotland; the first bull was registered in 1909. “The Shorthorn is the oldest breed in the world, has tremendous heritage and started off in the Yorkshire area, so where better to launch this scheme,” he says.

Previously, the farm kept animals entire, producing mainly bull beef, but the price premium available for Shorthorn steers and the simplicity of a forage-based system make it worthwhile changing tack and castrating the animals, Mr Turton says. “It’s got to be cost effective for us to do, which it is. It’s also a simple grass-based diet, which suits our farm well.”

Mr Turton tried to get involved in a similar local scheme 10 years ago, but lack of co-operation and leadership meant it never took off. He is confident things will be different this time around, with the added technical, marketing and financial support from EFFP. “People weren’t really looking for native breeds as much then, but things have changed,” he adds. “Anything that will increase demand for the breed is a good thing.”

The beef finisher

HALLThe eight animals in the pilot Shorthorn scheme are all being finished at Albert Hall Farms, Strensall, near York. Beef finisher Andrew Hall made the move from continental breeds to native breeds last year when he started finishing Aberdeen Angus cattle for local farm shops and Waitrose. “Feed prices were so high last year, we thought it would be a good idea to look at more traditional breeds which can live off a mainly silage or grass-based diet. We can feed them off our farm and reduce the amount of concentrate required.”

The move proved worthwhile, which gave him the confidence to get involved in the pilot scheme. Cattle are fed about 75kg of concentrates a day plus ad-lib grass silage. Target slaughter weight at about 21-22 months is 640kg and he says that growth rates are fairly consistent at 1.4-1.5kg a day. “For continentals, we probably needed about twice the amount of concentrates and a lot less silage, but were getting growth rates of more than 2kg a day. That’s 50-80% more feed cost for an extra 0.5kg a day, although you do get a faster turnaround of animals,” he says.

This slower turnaround of native breeds can pose challenges for managing cashflow, plus the nature of native breeds and variations in forage quality sometimes make it more difficult to get all animals to a consistent weight and quality at the same time, he says. Mr Loftus expects variability to diminish with improved breeding programmes.

The premium price such breeds attract compensates for some of this extra cost, but Mr Hall says that some of the premium can easily be swallowed up by paying more for cattle from breeders. “We’ve found demand is quite high for traditional breeds and supplies fairly limited, which means we have to pay more for them. It is possible to lose at least half of the premium when buying in animals.” But he hopes that, as the market for native breeds increases, more breeders will come forward and the price will come down.

“It’s good to be promoting a traditional breed in the local area; it’s what the public want,” he says.


  • Pilot scheme that aims to develop a premium market for beef Shorthorns in Yorkshire

  • Backed by a big wholesale butcher supplying local hotels, pubs and restaurants

  • Finishing uses common grass-based diet

  • First batch of eight steers due to be slaughtered this February – target liveweight 640kg (provides 350kg deadweight)

  • Prices based on Waitrose prices (typically 20p/kg above deadweight average)

  • Target to finish 250 cattle in first year – breeders and finishers wanted

  • Scheme supported by Yorkshire ForwardÕs Farexchange supply chain development programme and facilitated by English Farming & Food Partnership