Having inherited an interest in pedigree Limousins from his father, the breed is now a core part of Jim Quail’s family business. Barbara Collins reports.
A dedication to breeding the best Pedigree Limousin bulls for sale and rearing heifers for meat in the family’s shops and restaurants is what Jim Quail’s approach to farming is all about.
The Quail family have been farming their 40-hectare (100-acre) site at Banbridge in Co Down, for almost 100 years.
The land was bought by Matthew Quail, Jim’s grandfather. Before buying the site in Tullyear, Matthew had been trading in livestock as a dealer, buying and selling cows and calves to local farmers.
He opened a small butcher shop in Banbridge in 1898, which his wife Dora ran while he was out trading. Matthew’s son Joe, left school at an early age to work in the shop, staying there until he retired in the 1970s at the age of 65.
Jim, who now heads up Quails Fine Foods, says: “My father was born in 1906 and he killed his first lamb on the premises at the age of nine.”
Joe began collecting calves which his father bought in Belfast, dropping off select cuts of meat to a butcher in the city’s Shaftesbury Square.
“This meat ended up on the tables of well-to-do families on Malone Road. My father learned a lot watching these butchers and after my grandfather suddenly died, he took over the business and developed the butchery further.”
Following a year-long course in agriculture at Greenmount College, Jim returned in 1965 with a keen interest in working on-farm.
“I was never forced to go into the shop, but my father would suggest I help out on Saturdays so I ended up helping out every day after I left college,” he says.
Alongside this, Jim kept a pedigree flock of Hampshire Down sheep plus 30 Landrace pigs and their offspring in a pighouse. The 60 ewes, meanwhile, grazes the farm.
Jim showed his Hampshire Down Sheep at The Royal Dublin Show for 20 years in a row, winning 13 championships. He also was the first importer of Charollais sheep to Northern Ireland in 1986, when he and Jim Mulligan bought 16 ewes and one ram direct from the Charollais region of France.
He also grazed cattle bought from the Republic of Ireland and, when ready, these were sent into the butchery shop.
It was not until 1971 Jim got involved with Continental breeds when his father imported eight Charolais cattle from France. And in 1977 Jim bought his first Limousin heifer at the Dublin Show for Roger McCarrick for £1,600 Irish pounds.
“Everything was new then and Continental cattle had just started coming in,” he says.
“I liked the Limousin. They are a fine-boned breed with a high kill-out ratio. The carcase is good quality with a natural fine-grained meat.”
He imported more cattle from Limoges, France, buying four more heifers in 1979, and then more throughout the 1980s when he began breeding pedigrees, especially bulls.
“They were brilliant times,” he says. “It was really exciting to see all these new breeds coming in."
Valide was a horned bull which he bought from Limousin Breed president Louis de Neuville and who went on to win Balmoral Show in 1986.
“I showed quite a bit in those days. I sold all the good bulls I bred to Perth, along with the best of the cattle. I also grazed some of the heifers for the shop.
“At the time I was sending five or six heifers a week but now we send fewer as we have a higher carcase weight with a better yield. We also sell more added-value produce, such as pies and steak olives. And we are using more of the animal.”
It was Jim’s wife, Brydlyn, who first came up with the idea of ready meals and deli food and THEIR son Joseph has embraced this side of the business.
He spent three summers with a Limousin herd in France. What he learned there formed part of his Reading University dissertation on meat quality.
Joseph studied food science, food economics and marketing at Reading and then spent seven years as a sales manager for Foyle Meats, Derry.
Joseph says: “With the knowledge I gained at university and Foyle Meats, I felt my skills lay in retail and product development.
The shop was rebuilt by Jim after being demolished by a presumed IRA bomb in 1998 during the troubles.
The bomb happened in August and the refurbishment was completed by May 2000.
Joseph took over the management in 2005 after coming home, getting married and starting a family.
It has now grown to a butchers, food hall, deli and accompanying restaurant serving 50 covers every day.
There are also three other premises – one is a pizzeria called The Vault, a butchery concession with the Spar Group, and an art gallery cafe at the nearby FE McWilliam Gallery. All are run by Quails staff.
Many of Quails’ products have won awards from Bridgestone Food Guide and the Georgina Campbell hospitality guide, as well as an impressive 22 Great Taste Awards, including four this year for their 28-day Himalayan Salt Aged Bone-in Rib, home-cured pastrami, salt aged flat iron steak and pork sausage.
Many of their products derive from their pedigree Linderg herd. It has evolved through the years and the numbers have increased to what is now a 100-strong herd.
The problem with Limousins, says Jim, is they can be the victims of their own success.
He says: “There are 500 pedigree Limousin breeders in Northern Ireland alone. Only the top animals are sold for pedigree and there are lots of herds used commercially the same way they do in France.
“I also buy off local farmers who I have sold bulls to in the past, and I take their heifers for the shop too.”
The U3 grade is what he aims for every time he sends a heifer to the butchers and he believes females always have softer flesh and a decent covering of fat.
“Although fewer animals are being sent to the shop now than in the 1980s, more is being done with them.
“Cuts of meat I had never heard of when I started out are now very popular such as ribeye, hangar and flat iron.
“There is more seaming of meat, which means cutting the muscles between the joints into smaller cuts.
“In the early days, it just was not thought of to use all the cuts. People used to buy bigger quantities of meat but now they have been educated to cook with forequarter cuts, such as eye of chuck which is the perfect stewing cut.
“We sell a lot of lasagne now which wasn’t something I would have grown up with but tastes change and it helps us with total carcass use.”
Jim says he is particular about how animals are reared. He thinks it is an essential part of producing good beef. The animals are grazed on clover swards for six months of the year as they are rich in nitrogen, removing the need for as much fertiliser.
During winter they are fed silage, meal and wholecrop of either barley or wheat.
Calving takes place from Christmas to early spring.
Jim says: “The important bit is to aim your best bulls for the spring sales so they need to be 15-18 months at that time of the year.”
The health scheme covers testing for bovine viral diarrhoea, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, leptospirosis and Johne’s and the herd is also tested for bTB and brucellosis, but he does not experience any problems with his closed herd.
As the soil is quite dry, little fertiliser is used on the six to eight tonnes produced each year for silage.
There are eight to 10 of what he describes as the ‘very top’ bulls in the herd at present.
“I sold the son of our champion bull Linderg Jo at Carlisle for £20,000 recently. He was called Linderg James. It was great, but this does not happen every year. It has taken me 38 years to get to this point.
“It was a combination of all those years of successful bloodlines and showing bulls. Something just clicked and Hero was the perfect example of genetics working really well.”
Looking ahead, Jim intends to continue striving for the best.
“Farming is difficult; they say it is an incurable condition. I have been able to make a small acreage pay through the years by specialising in pedigree.
“The most work with the pedigree herd goes into halter-training the bulls. It is labour intensive and you need to have a good knowledge of the breed.
“After nearly four decades, I would hope to have learned nearly all there is to know about Limousins. It is great my son Joseph is taking care of the shops and restaurants. Let’s hope the three grandchildren inherit an interest too.”
For Joseph, future plans include expanding the shop and hopefully developing the relationship with Henderson Food Group/Spar.
He says: “It works well as my father takes care of the farm. It has always been his real love and it is good he can concentrate on this while I look after the retail. We’re a good team.”