MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR DEXTER CATTLE – ESTABLISHING A MARKET FOR BEEF
Margaret Weir: Wagra Dexter Cattle – Bendoc, Victoria
- INTRODUCTION. I wrote this page to share my experience with selling Dexter beef direct to consumers.
My qualification for giving this talk is 28 years of having done it successfully, and I am not going to talk about meat exactly, but more about selling it. I hope these brief notes will generate discussion, give you some ideas and help you establish your own niche market to make your Dexter herd more sustainable.
- PURPOSE. My hope is to encourage Members to process meat calves for sale to private customers.
Dexter cattle sold through yards or direct to abattoirs are penalised for small stature instead of being valued for their excellent eating quality and their perfect size for the home freezer.
- MINDSET. Dedication to your cattle, your produce and your customers will determine your success.
Breeders with a few cows will eventually need a reliable outlet for progeny, and as Dexter breeders of top-quality animals growing top quality meat, you deserve recognition for your dedication and hard work and you also deserve to get a good price for animals that are excess to your stud-stock requirements. You know that but when you truly believe in yourself and the quality of your farm produce, your customers will too.
- LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS. What food licence and food handling certificates do you need?
In order to sell directly with confidence and peace of mind, all the legalities must be sorted out and tended to ahead of time. The best place to start asking for advice is at your local shire health office. Ask questions and find out what you can and can’t do. (Finding the right person to speak to can make all the difference to this experience.)
- TRANSPORT & STORAGE. Will you need refrigerated transport and a cool room?
Setting up to be successful in a small, farm-gate meat business could be costly but if you are going to have excess calves to process year after year after year, these issues are well worth working through before you get to the stage of having animals ready to go. Being set up ready to do business leaves you with the freedom to enjoy what you do without worrying about being overstocked and what to do with next year’s calves.
- MEAT CREDENTIALS. Maintain a DCAI registered herd. Finish calves before processing.
When you are marketing beef as purebred Dexter you need to be breeding from a herd of registered Dexter parents in order to establish and maintain integrity and credibility. In order to build a reputation as a supplier of fantastic beef, however, you need to be turning off those calves in tip-top condition every single time. Your reputation relies on your meat calves being given the opportunity to grow out and finish well.
- CONSISTENCY, NOT CONTINUITY. Most customers buy two sides a year, some buy three or four.
Customers usually order for Christmas and again for winter. For us, that fits in with the spring and autumn flushes. Some people order a larger side and some order a smaller side. You don’t need continuity of supply when selling a seasonal product like grass-fed beef, but you do need consistency of product. It is better for your longer-term reputation to keep the customers waiting for a while than it is to process an unfinished beast just because the customer is putting on the pressure. Don’t be tempted to give in to customers who want their sides of Dexter beef yesterday. You most likely won’t lose those people, but if you do, you didn’t need them in the first place. (This is where you start to build your select list of loyal customers.)
- PACKAGING. Meal size packs according to each customer’s cutting sheet, cryovaced and frozen.
Customers choose how they want their meat cut and what size meal-packs. All our meat is cryovaced except for the sausages (or they split), and all our meat including sausage is frozen solid by the butcher, in accordance with our food licence. Each meal pack is individually labelled, and each heavy plastic outer has the name of the customer as indicated on each cutting sheet. For single pensioners we sell half a side with meal packs taken from the full length of the body, but that is the only concession we make. It is not a good idea to waver too far from what best suits you and your business.
- FOOD LICENCE. Our limited food licence permits us to sell pre-packed food in the original wrap.
We sell snack food, microwaved or still frozen. We can also store and sell meat so long as we do not remove it from the butchers wrapping. Our choice is to sell beef by the side, pre-ordered, but we don’t deliver. For those without a licence that permits storage, other arrangements might be possible, such as direct delivery to the customer, or the customer to collect from the butcher.
- FARM-SHOP. A farm-shop type of outlet could be interesting for breeders situated on a suburban fringe.
If I understood the Victorian Primesafe person correctly, to sell meat from a farm-shop set-up requires a retail butcher’s licence and is subject to the same audits as a retail butcher shop. In Victoria the farm-shop outlet requires a dedicated powered building with hot and cold running water and a gully trap. That would also involve the Planning Department but all of which is entirely achievable.
- SHOP-FRONT. Keeping an attractive ‘shop front’ face on your business is very important.
Customers are okay with old and rustic so long as it is clean and tidy, but nobody wants to buy food from anywhere that looks grotty and messy. That is just as true for the cattle, the farm and the paddocks as it is for the kitchen and pantry.
- CUSTOMERS. Customer Service and attention to detail is essential.
Your first customers are usually family and friends. When you sell in bulk, what you sell to them is a side of Dexter beef but what they buy from you are intangibles: quality, convenience, and comfort, along with a great sense of food security and well-being that happens when packing a side of prime quality Dexter beef into the home freezer.
- CONCEPT. What customers come back for is good eating.
We sell all the current catch cries, like “naturally reared, home-grown, HGP-free, grass-fed, grass finished, rich in omega-3, boutique, minority breed, biodiversity, etc, etc”, but what customers come back for is good eating. People remain loyal customers so long as the product is consistently good, and the attention to detail and customer service is even better. If you keep in touch regularly and care about your customers’ interests and well-being, you will have orders already waiting to be filled before your calves are ready to harvest.
- BUILDING YOUR CUSTOMER BASE: Word will spread that you sell the best beef in town.
Word-of-mouth is still the best advertising and it will not take long to establish a customer base, especially if you are active in your local community. You will attract new customers, but you must keep in touch with your existing customers regularly in order to build and retain that loyal customer base. They will usually let you know when they want to order more meat, but if they don’t think to ask when you are socialising with them you can mention that your next batch of beef is almost due for packing, “no pressure but should we keep you in mind?”
- PRICING requires detailed calculation.
A simple cost benefit analysis table would show how much goes into producing an animal in both good and bad seasons. Some people I speak to declare they are too far away from an abattoir that will do private slaughter. Breeders’ perception of “too far” has been anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours away and I agree, distance is a cost factor where one or two calves need to be processed, but a larger load would offset costs over greater distances.
- WHERE TO START. Questions, Questions and More Questions.
Start with research. Use the tools we all have. Look at what other people are doing and how they are doing it. Ask questions. Some people are very willing to share their knowledge and experience.
The internet provides access to websites of other businesses, relevant government departments and local government contacts.
Decide on what it is you want to do now and how that will look in the short and long term. Is it hobby farm or a business? Do you need an ABN? Do you have liability cover? Contact shire and they will give you information on what you will need and who to contact for guidelines on food handling, selling and transport regulations.
- OUR FARM I am aware that much of the country is in crisis and I don’t mean to be insensitive
I am speaking from a southern viewpoint and what works for us. Even though we have a very short growing season we lock up a third of our grazing for two months every year then make hay over Christmas. That leaves two short green paddocks to move cattle onto in the event of fire with hay making costs covered by previous meat sales. We have spring fed dams, but we also have emergency tank water.