To ensure full traceability of beef products in their prepared meals, Country Crest managing directors and fourth-generation farmers Michael Hoey and brother Gabriel spent more than €1m (£783,795) in the summer of 2013 building a unit to accommodate finished beef cattle.
“While no traces of horsemeat were found, our aim is to put credible food out there and rebuilding the business with a brand the public can trust has been a crucial part of our ethos,” says Michael.
Since the first heifers arrived mid-January last year, 650 yearling and forward store Charolais-cross and Limousin-cross heifers have been finished.
The Hoey brothers hope to see this rise to 1,000 head in 2015. Cattle are sourced from marts and farms, arriving in batches of 30-60 throughout the year.
Vaccinated on arrival, they spend two weeks in the isolation unit to develop full immunity before either going out to grass or being mixed with others in the main shed. This depends on grass availability, their age and size, says livestock manager Niall Hartford.
In order to monitor progress, heifers are weighed on their way into the finishing shed, halfway through, when they receive another pneumonia vaccine, and again on their way to loading for slaughter.
Keeping a close eye on heifers throughout the finishing period means the majority are graded at R+ and U and fat class 3, with 15-20 being slaughtered each week.
The high-end cuts then feed the newly opened farm shop, while diced and minced beef return to the farm to be made into ready meals. Using the meat they produce means the chefs cooking the ready meals can feed back information about the quality of the meat, which enables continual improvement on the farm.
The state-of-the-art unit consists of a quarantine shed, high-spec finishing shed and a sick bay and has been designed with animal health and welfare in mind.
The quarantine facility houses 90 cattle and is straw-bedded throughout. An open front and side allows plenty of ventilation and as a result Mr Hartford says there are few health problems.
“Our vet costs are about €20 [£16] a head for the finishing period of 70-100 days. This covers fluke and worm treatments plus vaccines for pnuemonia and clostridial diseases,” he adds. A separate sick bay allows them to isolate from the herd animals that pose a disease risk.
The main finishing shed holds 350-400 cattle. Six pens hold up to 30 animals, each of which has their back and tail clipped when entering the finishing shed to reduce sweating and maintain cleanliness.
The pens are divided into straw-bedded lying areas and a feeding area with a brushed concrete slatted floor. “The slatted feeding area is a practical idea to keep the shed cleaner as most dunging is done when feeding. The brushed concrete provides grip for the animals,” says Mr Hartford.
There are three passageways – a central feeding passage and two at either side allow ease of bedding up the lying areas with a straw blower.
The shed is also well lit for cow welfare, with 42 fluorescent tubes lighting the finishing shed, and additional lighting above the crush area.
To make sure heifer health remains at an optimum throughout finishing, the shed is well ventilated. Part concrete blocks and part ventilated tin sheeting, with small slits in the metal, ensures there is good airflow, but it is not too drafty, says Mr Hartford.
Feed and water troughs situated in the slatted area have been designed so they can be tipped out and cleaned daily to optimise intakes.
The whole unit is bird-proofed, including roller doors on the access gates, which can be lowered to the ground in severe weather. Mr Hartford says bird-proofing has greatly reduced feed contamination and disease risk.
No expense has been spared in this well-thought-out unit, with electricity to power the unit generated by the 80m on-site wind turbine, supplying more than 60% of Country Crest’s energy needs. A mechanical system blows air into the bottom of the slurry pit to prevent noxious gas build-up.