Part one can be found here
I walked the Omega Beef Direct farm of Joe Condon in the hills above Ardfinan on the slopes of the Knockmealdown mountains the day after Tipperary won the All-Ireland hurling final in September. It was the wettest day we had had for weeks but nobody cared in the slightest. The ground had no time to soak up all that rain, and rivulets meandered across the boggy slopes to swell the torrents tumbling over the Old Red Sandstone rocks that form the core of the hills. Joe’s Galloways grazed under the pouring rain with total unconcern, inured through their thick coats to such minor vagaries of the weather. They are made for these hills, selected over centuries for this environment, comfortable up here in all but the harshest of weathers. A careful eye is kept on condition, especially in the winter, and extra feed is given where they are not up to standard.
At key stages they are fed in grass paddocks on lower ground. The farm is organic, so no fertiliser is used on these paddocks, with the result that they have a wide diversity of grass and herb species: bents, sweet vernal-grass, crested dog’s-tail, Yorkshire fog, with an abundance of yarrow, self-heal, tormentil, cat’s-ear, lesser stitchwort, mouse-ear and lots of others.
For the rest of the time the animals are on the mountain (which is freehold commonage, where sheep also graze) – a mosaic of wet and dry heath, heathy grassland and bog with lots of sphagnum – on which they wander extensively, feeding on the wide variety of grasses, herbs and shrubs here, the mixture being the key to their general good health. Any scarcity of feed is compensated for by the area over which they forage (at an unhurried, energy-conserving pace).
The vet is a rare visitor to the hills above Ardfinan. How different this is from conventional beef farming, where intensive grassland management results in a sward that consists largely if not entirely of rye-grass and white clover, which provide the animal with the most monotonous of diets: and where animals are selected with a more single-minded eye to price and consumer fashion. The varied diet on the hills, on the other hand, is exactly what nature intends for these animals: which accounts for their robust health – and evident contentment. Their short life has been stress-free, lived under the natural conditions in which they are most at home.
One of the unforeseen costs of modern farming has been the affect of the clover-ryegrass diet on animal health and welfare. The superior quality of the ryegrass sward on the best soils had been recognized since the 18th century – with reservations – but the animals’ diet was never restricted to it. The mixed sward of traditional farming provided grazing animals with a nutritionally varied and balanced diet conducive to better health and greater contentment.
Today we are concerned in an unprecedented way about animal welfare, and methods of animal husbandry conducive to better welfare are more likely to win favour with the buying public and can be exploited by the farmer to help offset any immediate decrease in income that results from losses of ‘productivity’ resulting from the adoption of more extensive methods. Reduced veterinary bills, and the greater satisfaction that accompanies work of developing the new skills required are all factors that further restore the balance.
The problems associated with the breeding of animals purely for yield as estimated by weight and monetary outcome are being recognised increasingly. The new paradigm for sustainable agriculture currently being modeled by Liam Downey and Gordon Purvis at UCD has as one of its two poles rumen function: in effect, a farm on which the animals are healthy and happy as well as productive: and the other pole is a pasture management that provides this while at the same time maintaining biodiversity, landscape quality and the physical and chemical integrity of air, soil and water.
Putting the animal’s welfare first does come at a price, because these cattle will not deliver the ‘prime’ cuts our modern extravagant taste in meat leads us to demand. But once you have tasted a hamburger made with this Omega Beef you may come to redefine your taste in beef!
The claim that animals reared under more natural conditions – with more space and freedom and a more varied natural diet – taste better is widely accepted, but is generally based on personal experience and often anecdotal. Scientific research is now beginning to add quantitative teeth to the claim. Recent work in England and Wales has shown that beef, lamb and milk from species-diverse pasture have improved flavour, colour and shelf life, and higher levels of beneficial fatty acids. This work begins to provide a scientific basis for the concept of ‘terroir’, which links locally-produced foods to particular geographical locations.
The way of farming practiced by Omega Beef and similar enterprises has enormous value in conservation terms. It keeps bracken from establishing and prevents dominance of scrub, furze and heather, maintaining a more open mosaic of microhabitat conducive to greater biodiversity. Indeed, it may prove the ideal way to counter the dominance of bracken on mountain land everywhere. This is conservation grazing – the way the uplands should be managed – at its best. It was by and large the way they were managed in the more extensive economy of the 19th-early 20th century: the fossil field pattern and the evidence of drainage and field enclosure on the hills above Ardfinan are relics of the enormous effort in manpower involved. Those who farm the hills today – rather than leave them to their own less biodiverse ecological devices – are benefiting from the vast legacy of their labour.
This is a model of sustainable farming that combines optimal use of marginal land, conservation of biodiversity, and animal welfare, with top quality meat. This is farming that consciously anchors itself in a tradition: with a sense of cultural continuity and environmental sustainability.
Flags and bunting festooned every town and village I drove through as I made my way up to Thurles in the evening to join the throngs gathering to welcome the victorious Tipperary team home. There should be flags somewhere to celebrate the model of sustainable farming that is Omega Beef Direct.