Beef Raising on Stone – Farm Focus
by George Fullerton
Matthew Carlson of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture recommended Nelson Fagan Jr. as someone who could provide insight into the province’s beef industry. We met on his farm property in the community of Conception Bay South at the end of September.
Fagan is president of the province’s cattle ranchers association and is well involved in agricultural initiatives. He burst with enthusiasm as he toured his property, identifying a field of summer savory, his son’s sweet corn plot and the foundation of a new barn under construction. On the side were a few sea cans (shipping containers) and a motorhome.
âLike most farmers in Newfoundland, farming is just a part-time occupation,â Fagan said of his situation. âI also work as a carpenter in St. John’s and help run our butcher shop with family and hired staff.
The family business is N. Fagan Meats, who is based in Conception Bay South.
The new barn, measuring 40 feet by 60 feet, will house Fagan’s ox herd, including 10 purebred Charolais cows and their calves, replacement heifers and the herd bull. He said he planned to finish the barn this year.
Fagan obtained the 10 Charolais cows as pregnant heifers as part of the provincial government’s Beef Industry Improvement Initiative.
The Charolais heifers arrived in October 2020 and gave birth in the spring. Fagan used the sea cans as a temporary means of sheltering his livestock from the elements.
âDuring calving I would come home from my carpentry job in St. John’s and have dinner with my wife Kayla and our kids Austin and Abigail, then come here to watch the cows and feed them and then stay in the camper van. and get up every two hours to check calving, âFagan said. âThroughout the day, Kayla and my father took turns checking for calving issues. It was not a good setup, but we were successful in calving and we were determined to build this barn.
CHOOSE THE CHAROLAIS
Fagan said he made it clear in his beef industry improvement initiative proposal that he wanted Charolais.
âI have always liked Charolais cattle a lot and I think they will adapt well to our environment and produce excellent carcass qualities and excellent products on the shelves,â he said.
Viewing the Fagan herd required a 40 minute drive to the community pasture at Bay Roberts. The walk with Fagan and his wife was an opportunity to learn more about their breeding operation.
Fagan became president of the Provincial Cattlemen’s Association in 2017 and launched a lobbying campaign to gain government support for a bovine genetics improvement program.
âMy father has slaughtered cattle and traded meat all his life, and he complained over the past few years that slaughter cattle are getting smaller and smaller,â he said. “He’s convinced it’s the result of bad genetics.”
In Newfoundland, beef cattle are typically sent to community pasture for the grazing season.
âAnd often there is inconsistent examination of the grazing bulls,â Fagan said. “Sometimes bulls stay on the same pasture year after year and sometimes end up raising their own daughters, which definitely reduces genetics.”
Hence the lobbying campaign of the breeders association for a new genetics.
âWe lobbied constantly and after three years we had a program that invited applicants to search 20 groups of 10 pregnant purebred females,â said Fagan, referring to the Beef Industry Enhancement Initiative. âApplicants had to have experience in raising livestock and have shelter and feed available. Gravid females were primarily from the Maritime provinces, with a few Simmentals originating from Ontario.
The trip was also an opportunity to immerse yourself in the context of the N. Fagan Meats company. Nelson Fagan Jr. is the fourth generation of his family involved in the processing and marketing of meat.
Fagan’s grandfather and father established the current slaughterhouse and butcher shop. They kept a few heads of cattle and pigs and bought animals from other producers. In addition to selling certain products at the door of the store, the Fagans supplied other butchers and individual customers. Fagan’s grandfather operated a business that bought beef by full wagon to supply government institutions, but it eventually went out of business when overseas suppliers responded to that demand.
Fagan learned slaughter and meat cutting by watching his father and grandfather in the family store.
âMy first job at age nine was butchering the heads of slaughtered animals,â he said. âWhen I was 11, I was cutting meat with the bandsaw. He also learned the trade of a carpenter by working with an experienced carpenter employed by his grandfather.
Nelson Fagan Sr. continues to grow vegetables, in addition to raising, processing and marketing broilers. He is also a key part-time employee in the butcher shop.
The slaughterhouse and butcher’s shop are operated part-time by family and employees. In addition to processing his own cattle, Fagan purchases cattle from other producers, including cull dairy cattle. He said he is scrutinizing the quality of cull dairy products to ensure they will produce a carcass with a minimum D2 quality level. Dairy animals are processed into ground beef, which is sold, packaged, and used to make patties, meatballs, sausage, and meatloaf. The slaughterhouse also offers a personalized slaughter service, treating livestock and wild game (such as moose, caribou and bears) in season.
The carcasses are aged in a cooler with a rail system that can accommodate around 20 carcasses. The store includes a large walk-in freezer. Frozen meat is also sold in freezer shelves that Fagan has supplied to convenience stores and markets on the Avalon Peninsula.
âI buy the freezers, dress them with our logo and replenish them regularly,â he said.
He also built a freezer unit on a trailer, which he supplies with meat products and transports to communities on the Avalon Peninsula and beyond.
N. Fagan Meats maintains an active presence on Facebook, including updates on where Fagan is traveling with the trailer. Sometimes he brings vegetables from his father’s fields.
Fagan said COVID-19 has dramatically expanded its customer base as more people are concerned about food sovereignty and want to buy high-quality local food.
Community pastures are important in Newfoundland. Pastures are on Crown land and are administered locally through a license of occupation held by an individual or group. The grazing season runs from June to the end of October. Breeders and horse owners pay a royalty per animal. The fees are used to cover pasture expenses and to maintain roads, fences and corrals. The provincial Ministry of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture has assistance programs for the improvement of community pastures.
Fagan said some of the province’s pastures are very well managed and others less well.
Fagan and fellow beef producer Billy Cooper applied for and obtained the license to occupy the community pasture at Bay Roberts, which had a lot of grass when we visited in late September. The pasture is dotted with ponds, bushes and rocks. Cattle and horses are kept in separate pens. The cattle looked great and the calves were big and healthy.
Cooper, who is vice president of the provincial cattle ranchers association, lives directly across the valley from community pasture. Fagan said he “keeps an eye on pastures and livestock” and carries out frequent inspections.
The road to the community pasture is open to mountain bikers and Fagan said most were respectful.
âBut sometimes we get a call saying the cattle are out, and we realize that a recreational ATV user had enough energy to get down and open the door, but not enough energy to get down and close it. ! ” he said.
Fagan currently does not own any hay land. He buys round hay bales from dairy farmers.
âIt took 140 bales to feed my herd last winter,â he says. âThis year, I will add a few replacement heifers from my first generation of Charolais calves, so I will look for additional forage. The only supplement we give our livestock is brewer’s spent grain and some baked goods waste. We feed commercial feed to get some of our livestock to finish before slaughter. “
Fagan said Newfoundland farmers are passionate about their operations, although they face many challenges, such as a harsh climate and poor soils. Despite the challenges, he said that many young people want to cultivate and develop the agricultural industry.