Red beef by word of mouth

Julian and Fiona Downs, Rannoch Meats owners and red devon farmers at Greytown.
SONITA CHANDAR/Fairfax NZ

Julian and Fiona Downs, Rannoch Meats owners and red devon farmers at Greytown.

Standing in the middle of a paddock holding a cow's uterus while the vet performed an emergency caesarean, Wairarapa red devon breeder Julian Downs was in disbelief.

It was a world away from his job as an IT manager in Wellington and nothing remotely similar to computer programming, about which he knows plenty.

However, since that day Julian has learnt plenty about cattle.

"It really was the most bizarre experience I have had. While he was cleaning the cow, he handed me her uterus to hold," he says.

"I bet not many people and certainly not many IT specialists can say they have held a live cow's organ in their hands."

He has since gone on to combine computers and cattle to create a dream lifestyle for his family.

Julian and wife Fiona, a keen showjumper, bought 4 hectares on the outskirts of Greytown in 2000. They admit they started out with a limited knowledge of farming but were curious about what they could do on the property other than graze horses.

Whatever they did, it had to be something useful that fitted their lifestyle. "We debated for five or six years what to do with the land," he says. "I would spend my days in the office working with computers then spend the evenings dreaming up ideas for the block."

Attending a lifestyle farming course helped the couple decide on raising cattle for their own consumption. Finding the perfect breed was not an easy task.

They first raised angus steers, but they needed a great deal of time and care.

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"The angus came off back- country hills and were a bit wild as they had never been handled. It took a lot of work and time before we could get near them," Fiona says.

"We eventually settled on red devons because of their quiet nature," Julian says.

Red devon breeder Graeme Dyke convinced them to try the breed in 2007, so they bought three in-calf cows to start their operation.

"Not only were these three the start of our breeding herd, it was also the start of a very steep learning curve," Julian says.

"Cow one calved with no problem and so did cow two. On a Sunday morning, we had to call out the vet for the third cow because the calf had become stuck during the birth."

The calf did not survive but the cow recovered and went on to produce numerous healthy calves.

One morning while chatting with work colleagues, Julian mentioned the family had dined on home kill with fresh vegetables from their garden.

"You get a real satisfaction from knowing and telling someone you grew it all yourself," he says.

"Then a few of them said they would be interested in some home kill. I immediately saw an opportunity to breed and sell meat direct from our farm."

Julian says he knew selling home kill was not allowed. He was aware of some regulations and that cattle had to be slaughtered at an abattoir and go to a butcher for processing.

"Once we understood what needed to be done, it was not difficult to meet those regulations," Julian says.

"People did say to us just to do it at home but we wanted to do it properly and legally so there was no comeback," Fiona says.

"It also meant the processing was done to the highest standard and meat quality maintained," Julian says.

The couple established Rannoch Meats and over the past few years have been selling beef at the Hill St Farmers' Market in Wellington where they have established a solid customer base.

Word of mouth has worked well, but it is Julian's IT background that is helping the business grow. He developed a website, with the help of several colleagues, and, through social media, demand for their meat is growing steadily, often outstripping supply.

"At the time, the website was far bigger than the business was but we have finally grown into it," Fiona says.

Orders taken through the website are predominantly from domestic customers although there have been requests from overseas.

"We have had people ring many times asking us to send meat to Japan, China or India but we can't meet these requests as we don't have an export licence," Julian says.

A colleague helped Julian develop a marketing campaign, and he also spoke to several restaurant owners. He followed up with a visit to get a greater understanding of how restaurants worked and what was needed.

Rannoch Meats now supplies several restaurants in the greater Wellington region and although most want top cuts of steak, he is also being asked for slow-cook cuts.

At least two cattle are sent for slaughter each week but demand is constantly outstripping supply. Only a limited number of animals can be raised on their block, so other cattle are bought from trusted red devon breeders when necessary.

"The ultimate goal is to have the whole paddock-to-plate experience and a great lifestyle on the farm," Julian says.

"I enjoy working in IT, which is an important part of how Rannoch Meats operates, but farming is a completely different way of thinking. I come home and switch to being a farmer, which is nice way to wind down."

 - Manawatu Standard

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