A varied mix of farming and diversification ideas has enabled one Northern Ireland farmer to reinvigorate his family farm which has become one to watch in the region. Barbara Collins visits the man behind Hillstown Meats. PICTURES: Columba O’Hare
Beer-fed cattle and a new brew are the latest focus for Nigel Logan at Hillstown Farm but for him, coming up with new ideas is vital to staying in business.
The fourth-generation farmer knew the only way to make a living from the 53 hectares (130 acres) the Logans own between Ahoghill and Randalstown in County Antrim, was to diversify.
The land has been in the family for more than 100 years and is all grassland and all lowland, being built up gradually over time.
He says: “It was a suckler cow beef farm really. When I took over from my father, I knew I would have to do something more than just finishing cattle and sending them to mart or to the factory.”
So seven years ago, Nigel decided to open a farm shop, which has since gone on to become one of the most popular in the area.
“Before the farm shop opened, we were killing the odd animal and getting it butchered and putting it into the freezer.
“Some of the neighbours bought meat from us and it was obviously very small scale, but it got us thinking of whether there was a potential market to develop.
Converting one of their sheds, Nigel brought in their own butcher and butchery counter and all the animals are reared – and needed – for the shop’s output.
The farm manages 60 Shorthorn and Angus cows which are crossed with Shorthorn and Limousin bulls.
“As we need beef that will hang for 28-35 days on the bone, we require good fat coverage on the beef to protect it which reduces the trimming losses in the butchery. Also we are very impressed by the mothering and ease of calving with the Shorthorn and Angus cows.”
The sheep are mainly Mules and Texels crossed with Beltex rams and Nigel also purchases extra lambs from a local farm which breeds pedigree sheep. All cull ewes are fattened to provide mutton for the shop.
Customers prefer lean lamb and something, Nigel says, has been learned through experience.
“They need a wee bit of feeding in the wintertime outside. They are never inside as we have no housing for sheep and we just give them a shake of meal bought from a local supplier.”
Nigel’s father, Francis Logan, still works on the farm full-time, while his uncle Robert Logan takes care of their many chickens, the eggs from which are sold and used in the café they opened last year.
The café was part-funded with a grant from the European Fund for Diversification, but there was no financial help available when the farm shop was first built.
“It was very humble at the start but over the years we kept spending money on it and putting more stock in it and got it to the stage we’re at now,” says Nigel.
That stage involves buying-in fruit and vegetables from a wholesaler called Total Produce in Belfast and sourcing jams and chutneys made by some of their neighbours as well as traybakes, buns and cakes for the café and to sell as take away goods.
Nigel believes there is a definite trend towards people shopping local and making a visit to a farm shop a destination in itself.
“Many will come to us for breakfast on Saturday mornings and then do their shopping in farm shop. People are certainly travelling from greater distances to us and we get lots more people from Belfast now than we used to,” he explains.
Nigel admits it was a bit of a leap in the dark to open a farm shop in a recession, but he says winning awards has helped with publicity.
“Within the first two months of opening, we won the Northern Ireland Sausage Competition for our pork sausages and we have won it five or six times since then. That definitely brings people through the door.”
Pure-bred Gloucester Old Spot sows are crossed with Landrace, to deliberately reduce the fat a rare breed pig would produce and to improve carcase conformation.
“This produces pork we believe is outstanding in flavour and provides a good sized chop and roast size. We also put the meat from the naturally marbled shoulders into our sausages and we dry cure the legs and loins to make bacon and gammons.
There are between 12 and 14 sows on-farm, plus finishers and Nigel ensures they have a year-round supply of pork for the shop. The pigs are finished at six to eight months and killed deadweight at about 75-85 kg, with an average litter size of 11.
“We try to spread them out so we can keep up with the customer demand for the sausages and pork in the shop,” says Nigel.
“Our pigs are outdoor-reared for about two-thirds of the year in open sheds and forage though fenced off paddocks and gardens.
“For the rest of the year due to the damp climate here, we bring them into wooden pig sheds which are partly bedded partly slatted for comfort.
As for the cattle, their breeding programme is geared towards getting as much marbling of fat in the beef as possible.
Cattle are finished all year round to keep supplying the farm shop, with the aim of achieving a carcase weight of 290-330kg and a fat class 4-4H.
Nigel buys-in stores from local farmers and the breeds include Hereford, Angus, Shorthorn, Belted Galloway, Irish Moille and Wagyu.
“We aim for only native breeds which will produce naturally marbled beef and we normally buy in cattle at about 12-15 months so we can feed and finish them on our homemade stout.”
“Fatter cattle hang better. We like to hang our beef for 30-35 days before we cut it up and prefer to stick with the hardier breeds because they are easier to look after.
“We don’t use antibiotics because we don’t have to and they are also easier to finish. They don’t need meal and in the wintertime we just give them silage and hay and that’s all they really need,” says Nigel.
Most calving takes place in spring, with a few in autumn and a herd health programme is put in place to combat issues they have previously experienced.
“We like to vaccinate against problems we’ve had in the past like IBR and we vaccinate against BVD for the calves. We also make sure we are protected against scour and other problems calves can have.”
The beer-fed part of the herd makes up around a dozen animals and more recently, Nigel has bought some Wagyu cattle from a neighbour.
“It’s a bit of an experiment. A neighbour artificially inseminated some Angus cattle with Wagyu straws.
“They’re still only 15 months but it would be nice to get them on the beer soon. We don’t massage them or anything like that.”
“They are more expensive to buy at 50 per cent more than your average cow but I am excited to get them on the shelf at the farm shop and for steak nights, like we do with our beer-fed cattle.
“We charge an extra 20 per cent to cover the beer costs. It’s a very good, tender meat and a lot softer with a faster cooking time. It’s a good selling point that it’s fed on beer and we’ve had a lot of good publicity from it,” says Nigel.
Nigel has always brewed his own beer, which is how he came to have the leftover meal to feed the cattle with. He also got advice from a local brewer, Deborah Mitchell from Geterbrewed.
Nigel’s latest venture is brewing his own beer commercially, which is made from just grain and hops and yeast.
The first beers will be ready for market soon and most of the names have already been chosen including the Massey Red, Goat’s Butt and Horny Bull.
“We want names that will stand out. We’re working on a Belgian Triple at the moment and we will probably run a competition to decide on the name for that.”
Although the plan is to sell the beer at the farm shop, Nigel has already received enquiries from off-licences and local restaurants.
“We’re just trying to get the brewery completed and working to full capacity. We hope to be at the 7,000-litre threshold before you have to start paying duty soon.”
Future plans include more foodie nights at the café along with tastings and a beer-matching menu.
“People seem to like the quirky things these days. I’ve also had people asking about doing brewing courses.”
Back on-farm, Nigel also plans to experiment more with different breeds to improve their beef and pork which they sell in the farm shop.
“We intend to launch more types of beers and start brewing days and farm days for people who want to find out more about what we do.
We are already active participants of Open Farm Weekend and plan to hold more open days throughout the year.”