Peter Monaghan is a 20-cow suckler farmer and the proud owner of Inis Escargot, a snail farm based near Maghera, Co. Cavan.

The suckler system involves producing top-quality E and U-grade weanlings and the snail farm is a fully integrated system where Peter breeds, rears, fattens, finishes and exports all his own snails from his farm.

Agriland paid a visit to the farm this week to find out more about how Peter has mastered the art of producing snails and how snail farming fits in with a small-scale suckler farm.

Peter has been snail farming for five years and has ambitious plans to expand his snail farm as well as to encourage more people into the industry.

Snail breeding

“Breeding on the snail farm is starting earlier and earlier every year on the farm because there is a growing number of customers looking for baby snails,” said Peter.

Breeding normally starts in the first week of January and continues until late March.

Approximately 300kg of snails are taken from the hibernation unit and are placed on tables in the farm’s breeding unit.

Snails on the breeding table

Once they wake from hibernation, the snails generally start breeding in 2-3 weeks and laying pots are introduced then.

A fence is placed around the edge of each breeding table. Adult snails are fenced in with salt while the younger, more sensitive snails are fenced in with lime or soap.

Salt fences to prevent snails from escaping

Laying pots stay in the breeding unit for the duration of the breeding cycle, which runs from late-January to March.

The snails lay into the laying posts and the eggs are extracted every two days. The eggs go into poly containers with 20 clusters in each one, amounting to between 2,000-3,000 eggs/container.

“We supplement them with mist to keep the eggs moist,” explained Peter.

“Our snails are laying very well here in the breeding unit, we find our clusters are up to 150 eggs/cluster while the average on other farms would be 100-120.”

The snail eggs don’t hatch, they slowly morph into a small snail. This process happens over 14 days when the snails are then ready to grow to the next stage of the fattening process.

The polytunnel stage

Once the morphing stage is complete, the young snails are moved to curtains placed on tables in a polytunnel, where the young snails get the first of their Brassica forage rape. They are then introduced to high calcium, high-energy young-snail food.

Peter noted: “At first, they tend not to eat much of this food early on, maybe half a kilo between them all.

“By the time they leave the polytunnel, they would be eating 15kg/day of feed between them.”

After baby snails are sold, approximately 1.2 million snails are moved to the polytunnel.

“We aim to get them out of the polytunnel before the second week of June,” said Peter.

The field stage

The final stage of fattening is when the snails go out to the field. The field is less than 1ac in size, is surrounded with galvanise sheeting and covered in netting to keep birds out.

A larger brassica crop is available here for the snails to eat and they are also given access to snail food.

Of the 1.2 million snails that are brought to the finishing stage, 10,000kg of snails will be sold as finished snails while approximately 900kg of the best snails will be kept as replacement breeding snails, which will be picked earlier in September.

A total of 700 feed boards are spread across the 1ac field, which act as troughs and act as shelter from the sun.

The concentrates fed to the snails is increased to peak at 120kg/day from early August onwards.

Seasonal production

Peter explained that his system is very much currently a “seasonal production system”.

“We’re at the point here that because it’s such a large snail farm, we’re really only getting November off,” he said.

“We will probably have our harvesting done by the end of October this year, shut up shop then for a four-week holiday then in December, lights will go on in the breeding unit and you’re ready to go again.

“In the future we hope to have two harvests/year and maybe cover more fields in polytunnel.”

Snail markets

Peter noted that currently, there’s no market in Ireland for snails, and said the biggest markets are currently in Greece, where the processing plants are, and France as well as Spain.

The native Irish snail is the Hélix Aspersa Muller and it is one of the most popular eating snails in Europe.

“Other countries are taking advantage of the native Irish snail and making a handsome profit,” said Peter.

“When I got into snail farming, I knew the price I was getting before I bought them. It’s not like cattle. You know what price you’re going to get in advance with snails.

“We have the ideal climate here. I feel we can get these snails fattened quicker than any other country. “

The perfect finished snail is 10-12g. Snails that are bigger than that, are kept for breeding.

“The larger snails with the nicer shell turn out to be the better breeders,” Peter added.

“Snails are hermaphrodites so they can all breed, it’s not like the sucklers where you keep a stockbull that produces no calf itself. Once they breed both snails will lay eggs.”

More snail farmers

Peter is running training courses and hopes to develop a network of prosperous snail farmers in Ireland. He hopes there will also be grants and financial incentives offered to encourage more people to consider snail farming in the future.

Peter also has plans to look at diversifying into selling snail slime and snail caviar as well as selling shells, baby snails and breeding snails.

“There’s no other farming that has such a market for that amount of product on such a small space of land,” he said.

“I really want to get more snail farmers on the ground. If we had 50 good, solid snail farmers on the ground here, you’d never know where it could go from there.”

Targets

Commenting on his targets, Peter explained: “If my finished snails are averaging 10g and I sell 100,000 snails, that’s 1t.

“I’m hoping here at the end of this year when I take out my breeders out, my snails have the potential to reach over 10t of finished snails and this year you’re talking probably €4.50/kg for snails with the way everything is gone.”

“To me that’s a good margin. I have my costs down to the minimum. If you take €4.50/kg over 10t, it’s not to be frowned at. There’s not to many beef farms making that kind of money.”

Peter plans to double the size of his breeding unit and install another polytunnel for the young snails. He also has plans to expand his finishing unit.

“There’s a huge expansion going on here, especially in the breeding unit,” he said.

The suckler herd

Commenting on the suckler enterprise, Peter explained: “We keep 20 suckler cows.”

He added that the farm had been using a stockbull which was the progeny of Joker Du Pont D’Herbais, the well-known Belgian Blue bull.

He said that the farm is now using artificial insemination (AI) but plans to return to using a stockbull in the future.

Peter noted: “The reason we use Belgian Blue is with such a small herd, I feel I have to be getting very close to €5/kg liveweight for most of my calves before they hit 300kg. The weanlings have to be averaging €5/kg for such a small herd.”

The type of cow on the farm is generally a Belgian Blue-cross. Peter admitted he has a preference for Blue-cross cows and said he keeps the out-cross cows “to ensure they’re not too muscly and they have enough milk”.

Weanlings are sold at the mart in September and last year, one of Peter’s top-priced weanlings was a daughter of Brooklands Marco, off a colored Belgian Blue cow weighing 280kg and selling for €1,375 or €4.91/kg at Ballyjamesduff Mart.

“That’s a profitable cow in my opinion,” Peter said.

“I need as little hardship as possible with the suckler cows because this snail unit runs very intensively when I’m calving the cows.”