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by Eilidh MacPherson
Operating the only complete forage based beef finishing system in Scotland and possibly the UK, Michael Shannon of Thankerton Camp, Lanarkshire has a unique product and – as the label says – it is Damn Delicious!!
Having spent twenty-three years selling the virtues of grass seeds and kale varieties wholesale across the country as an agent and consultant for British Seed Houses, the last British seed company, Michael Shannon is now practicing what he preached.
Michael bought the 175-acre Lanarkshire property in 1996, but as he had a full time job he initially rented it out. “I felt to make this farm viable I was going to have to sell my own produce. I’m a business man – in it to make money, no sentimentality.”
When researching he realised that so many farmers were selling their own meat, “it was absolutely phenomenal, we had to do something different.”
Using his previous experience in the seed business and his time spent in New Zealand Michael decided to operate a New Zealand beef fattening unit, out wintering on kale, supplementing with silage in the winter months and on grass all summer.
“I went out to New Zealand while I worked for BSH to find a low cost system for UK farmers, as I was in charge of kale and other barassicas. I was part of the group of people who set up the SAC Out wintering with Gavin Hill and Basil Lowman.
“A lot of farmers now practice out wintering, but we’ve taken it to the next extreme and removed the grain. It isn’t quite so low cost at the moment with the price of barley having dropped! But it works for me and it is the way I want to farm.”
Maris Kestrel Kale is the variety sown at Thankerton Camp. “We take baled, first cut silage and stagger the bales across the field – another concept I took home from NZ. It is then strip grazed with a bale of silage fed out with each strip. Whole crop is then under sown in grass, acting as a nurse crop to the grass.
“Purely and simply the key to the whole operation is to get a good establishment of grass. The key to fattening cattle off grass is fresh young grass.”
Michael has the property broken down into 7 fields of 25 acres and each field has been measured and divided into equal paddocks. Using electric fencing he moves it daily, lining it up to pre-painted fence posts.
“Treat them like dairy cows – they are on a rotational system getting moved every day. At the peak-growing season the cattle gain 2kg/day. When the cattle come off the kale there is no check like from indoors to outdoors so over the next six weeks is my harvest and all the cattle that were on kale will be killed. We have our maximum stock numbers on now in align with the grass growth. A lot of UK farmers waste grass, whereas we try to get stock numbers to follow the growth curve.”
“My system operates on winter running from October 15 till April 15, the rest of the time the cattle are on grass. Stock are put onto the grass when it is 10-15cm high and it needs to be tightly grazed just now to reduce seed heads later on.”
High sugar grasses and white clover are used on Thankerton Camp. IGER mixes are proven to increase meat yield and have the highest grazing yield. Mr Shannon tends to keep abreast of new varieties and admits
Michael buys all his cattle out of the market, “When I was working full time I found it very time consuming, but I did try buying direct and was disappointed. My goal is to have the whole place black – all Aberdeen Angus. I try to sell as much off the farm butchered as possible, but any extra beasts head to Highland Meats.”
‘Damn Delicious – quality farm produce direct to your door’ was aptly launched on St Patrick’s Day last year. I say ‘aptly,’ as Michael is Irish.
Marketing Concepts in Edinburgh branded the business, with signage, logos, a website and brochures. A healthy, natural image is portrayed and it seems to be going to plan as orders are rolling in. Deliveries from Devon to Gairloch have been couriered out.
A computer guru is paid to keep www.damndelicious.co.uk at the top of the internet searches as in Australia Damn Delicious is a cake shop and in Austria a bondage website!!
The cattle are killed at Wishaw and then hung for a month on farm in a custom made all-in one, freezer, butchery and shop, which are housed in a container. A butcher works part time and Michael does all the packing and labelling. “Sales on line have gone quite well considering we launched as the credit crunch started. We have attended a few specialist shows, including Gordon Ramsay does Christmas in London and have had a fair bit of business from it,” said Michael, who is married to Michelle with a family of five.
Charity dinners with celebrity chefs and the International Film Festival Gala Dinner in Edinburgh are some of the venues that will be serving Damn Delicious meat – and they won’t be disappointed. The biggest buzz for Michael is when he gets positive feedback.
This inspiring Irishman feels that to survive in farming nowadays you have to have a willingness to open your mind to new ideas. “Scottish farming doesn’t need to change physically – farmers need to change.”
“Travelling to New Zealand was a life changing experience for me – the can do attitude of farmers there is unbelievable!”