The story of Kilkenny Rosé Veal

In 2015 when he was studying rural enterprise, Jack Hahessy Madigan saw an opportunity to build an agribusiness and add value to his family farm, located at Windgap, Co. Kilkenny.              

What inspired you to start the company?

In Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), I was looking to develop an agribusiness that could be incorporated into the family farm. It was important that the new business didn’t take from existing cash-flow or need any additional land – as dad had already planted the farm with miscanthus, a biomass crop used as a fuel for electricity generation. I narrowed my farming options down to three enterprises namely pig, poultry or veal production. After some research, I decided to focus on a particular category of veal, called ‘Rosé Veal’. I felt there was a commercial opportunity because of the large number of Irish calves being exported into Europe for veal production and because of the high value cuts of veal that were being re-imported back into the country for consumption.

This was a loss to the local economy and was one of the reasons why we considered setting up the business in the first place. It could help keep more of these young calves in Ireland, by offering an alternative to exporting them live to Europe, destined for the conventional white veal industry. Our Kilkenny Rosé Veal is produced to the highest animal welfare standards possible and we aim to have the animals at 350Kg at between eight-to-nine months. The meat itself has a more rosy or pink colour, halfway between white veal, which is pale and conventional beef which is darker.

First customer

It was during college when I decided to go into rosé veal production. Each month we began buying small batches of calves to rear on the farm at home. At the end of the first batch, instead of selling to the factory, we decided to sell them ourselves. Initially, it was to a butcher in Kilkenny along with a side of veal to a Michelin restaurant, also based in Kilkenny. We received some excellent feedback and straightaway we felt we were onto something.

Since then, we have been focusing on the wholesale veal market in Ireland, supplying both restaurants and hotels nationwide via excellent wholesalers such as, La Rousse Foods. We are now looking to develop a bit more presence within retail and have recently started to promote online ordering. We have also begun some small trial exports to Belgium. It’s an area we would like to develop because of the large volumes of veal consumed there.

Short supply chain

We are the only farm in Ireland to have the ‘Good Calf Commendation’ from Compassion in World Farming for the high welfare system that we employ. Our supply chain is short and centred within Co. Kilkenny. When the calves arrive onto our farm, they are kept in the same group from start to finish. They have a social group of 15 calves and are kept in large bright airy pens, on straw bedding. We don’t dehorn or castrate and our aim is to try and get the calf to develop naturally. We have a sophisticated Lely calf feeder and the milk is increased gradually. They grow and develop naturally and the forage we use is the best of quality. They are weaned slowly, with minimum stress on the calf. Hennessey’s Calf Farm based in Urlingford act as our agents to help source the calves and after rearing on our farm, we use Tynan’s Abattoir in Johnstown who do an excellent job for us. We always get compliments from the people who buy our veal about its quality and presentation. Eventually I hope that Kilkenny Rosé Veal will be the brand that becomes synonymous veal.

“We don’t dehorn or castrate and our aim is to try and get the calf to develop naturally”

What challenges did you face?

Starting off any business has its challenges and some of the issues we experienced were lack of consumer awareness about the product and ensuring that we had sufficient demand for our forequarter veal. It’s also amazing how the meat market can be affected by weather or how sales can dip during the game season in the autumn which is not something you could predict.

Most exciting achievements

We recently completed our new purpose-built veal rearing facility which was a great achievement. It really turned out well and has given us a shop window for our veal where we can invite and bring along the likes of chefs or customers to view it. I was also thrilled to be awarded the Kilkenny County Young Enterprise Winner for the ‘established business’ category in 2016. I found it very beneficial along with the substantial amount of prize money, which was a great help to the business. It provides you with the chance to network with and learn from people and influencers that you wouldn’t normally be able to meet.

“I believe that branding is everything and the value of a brand is something that some farmers don’t fully appreciate”

Is the business scalable?

Yes it’s definitely scalable but it would take considerable cash-flow to scale it. There are eighty thousand calves leaving Ireland for Europe for veal production every year and one very large company in Holland supplies one hundred thousand animals per month.

What lessons could you share with fellow entrepreneurs?

I believe that branding is everything and the value of a brand is something that some farmers don’t fully appreciate. It’s also important to surround yourself with good people to help you in the areas that you are not as strong in. That’s a huge help, but make sure they are positive because you are going to have negative experiences along the way. There’s no point surrounding yourself with people that are negative, as it doesn’t help anyone. I suppose the last thing I would say is don’t be afraid to take a risk, especially when you are young. I didn’t really mind because if I gave the business five odd years to succeed, I’d still only be 27 and that’s young in the modern way of things – so it’s definitely worth the risk for those few years.

Published on 9 July, 2019