Consumers in Greece love their beef, creating a high year-round demand for the protein source.
To feed this demand there are a number of larger beef-fattening units set up around the country, supplying the meat to both private customers and wholesalers.
However, Greek beef farmers say the recent financial crisis in the country has hurt prices. Consumers prefer to purchase cheaper cuts, potentially from imports, rather than locally produced quality beef.
While that struggle continues as a major challenge facing Greek farmers, one larger farming operation appears to be holding its own as it fattens and finishes both beef and lamb.
Vootrofiki Ritsona is a farm run by young farmer Ioanna Kylertzi, who took over the operation from her father Apostolis, who had set up the farm along with his two brothers. The farm fattens around 1,000 calves as well as 14,000 lambs per year. It’s located in Ritsona, a mountainous territory about 70 kilometres from Athens, the capital of Greece.
The Belgian Blue connection
“I have a bachelor’s degree from the Agricultural University of Athens as a being an animal specialist,” Kylertzi says. She imports all her feeder calves from Romania and prefers to buy male Belgian Blue animals, since they grow faster on the farm rations. The goal is to finish the animals in just 300 days, producing a beef carcass that weighs about 350 kilograms (770 lbs.) — the perfect size for customer preference.
“We import two-month-old Belgian Blue calves from Romania, which weigh an average of 100 kilograms while on a milk-based diet,” she says. “After two months from their arrival on our farm their diet changes to a mixed ration of crops and straw. The system we use is intensive, so the animals are kept indoors and are fed in lots of 10 head per pen.”
All feedstuffs are sourced from their own land or neighbouring farms. For ration ingredients, Kylertzi uses locally produced grains and crops which are mixed into the ration on the farm. The family plans to purchase a Keenan diet feeder (mixer wagon) to add efficiency and reduce losses in their mixing routines.
The feeder diet consists of a mixture of concentrated crops such as corn, barley, soy and corn silage. The coarse feed is mostly wheat straw, all fed ad-lib.
Production facilities need to manage varying temperatures during the year. Although there is no harsh winter by Canadian standards, temperatures can range from zero to 15 C during the winter and spring, while they range from a comfortable 22 to a stressful 40 C during the summer.
“Due to the high temperatures during the summer months we use a ventilation system (in barns) in order to avoid heat stress among the cattle and any side effects,” Kylertzi says.
She says feed intake varies depending on the weight of the animal.
“We prefer to buy male Belgian Blue calves as the daily live weight gain is more than 1.6 kilograms (3.5 lbs.) per head and the yield from the carcass is normally more than 60 per cent.
“On this farm the fattening period is around 10 months and within 300 days the animals’ live weight is more than 550 kilograms,” she says. “This is the ideal weight for markets we supply. The carcasses dress out at around 350 kilograms and are sold wholesale or retail in our outlets.”
According to recent data from the Greek Ministry of Agriculture, beef prices at the farm gate vary from to 4.10 euros (C$5.86) per kilogram deadweight.
Prices for young bulls can vary up to 4.69 euros (C$6.87) per kilogram, while prices can go higher for organic beef meat and for the beef meat from indigenous animal breeds.
Competing with imports
However, Kylertzi says there are challenges from cheaper meat imports and lack of EU funds to help her business expand.
“The number of beef farms in Greece is declining as the price of imported beef is more competitive,” she says. And their farm is not eligible for any financial assistance from the EU.
According to published reports, red meat shortages in Greece are partly the result of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. According to an EU directive, countries of the European north undertook the production of meat and dairy products while southern countries undertook the production of olive oil, fruits and vegetables.
Before joining the EU nearly 40 years ago, Greece produced 85 per cent of the pork and 66 per cent of the beef it consumes, while in more recent years, the respective figures are more like 63 and 13 per cent. The country imports most of its beef.
“Due to the fiscal crisis that Greece has been struggling with the past decade, consumers have to prioritize their budgets,” Kylertzi says. Many are opting for cheaper, lower-quality meat imports over locally produced higher-quality cuts. “That’s the challenge we face, but we are doing our best to keep up with new technology and improve efficiency in a competitive market.”