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Saturday 3 December 2016

Organics: 'We need to change sooner rather than later'

Dairy farmer John McHugh tells Grace Maher why he is going organic

Published 20/04/2016 | 02:30

John McHugh with his son Paddy on the farm at Clondarrig, Co Laois.
John McHugh with his son Paddy on the farm at Clondarrig, Co Laois.

Over 500 farmers took the decision to leave mainstream farmer and convert to organic dairy, beef, sheep and other enterprises last year.

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John McHugh, a dairy farmer in Clondarrig, just outside of Portlaoise, Co Laois, was one of those who took the plunge. John (35) has run the family farm since his father died in 1999 and in the intervening years he has streamlined production on the farm.

The farm was typical of the area, a mixed enterprise with 30 cows, 100 sheep and 100ac of barley and sugar beet. The first to go were the sheep as it was very labour intensive and in 2006/7 John built a new milking parlour.

He purchased milk quota, and as it was profitable it made financial sense to focus on dairy production. In 2007 he started off milking 60 cows and by 2015 was milking 160. Now he has taken it a step further and converted to organic.

"Of course it made me rethink what I was doing on the farm," says John about the abolition of quotas. "In my view I was approaching full capacity here and the farm was responding well and was profitable. I felt pushing the farm any further was merely chasing output.

"While economics was one aspect the overriding reason for my conversion to organic production is environmental sustainability. I have done my research and am confident that I am making the correct decision for me and my farm. I am the third generation of farmer on this farm to use chemical inputs, we are trained not to question them, but there has to be a better way of producing clean quality food.

"I really believe that there are big problems associated with how we are doing things - we need to change and sooner rather than later. Organic farming for me represents a more productive method of farming, one that measures the full cost, both financial and environmental, of the inputs involved," says John..

John is not taking converting to organic lightly. He has done his farm projections and expects a drop in income during conversion but his conservative projections predict his profits will soon return to current levels and above it.

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He will undergo a two-year conversion period where he farms organically, but his milk cannot be sold organically and goes into the conventional sector.

After two years he gets his organic symbol from IOFGA, and can then sell his milk as organic. He can no longer use artificial fertilisers and that's the biggest challenge for most farmers as excellent grassland management is crucial to a successful organic dairy farm.

John was carrying 2.5 LU/ha, this year he will reduce that to 1.5 LU/ha, with the aim of gradually increasing stocking levels as he accesses the full potential of the farm.

The income drop during the conversion period is offset by stock sales, and payments received from participating in the Organic Farming Scheme of €220/ha while in conversion, and €170/ha when fully converted.

Economics

By switching to organic production the variable costs on John's farm will be significantly reduced. In 2015, John spent €33,000 on artificial fertilisers, which are obviously now prohibited in organics. His annual vet bill averaged €7-10,000, he hopes to reduce this by improving overall animal health through methods such as the herbal leys outlined above.

However, establishment costs of reseeding herbal leys are almost double the price of conventional reseeding, as organic seed is more expensive and is imported from the UK so sterling exchanges apply.

Feed costs in organic farming are higher than conventional production with rations costing up to €500/t, by feeding from straights this can be reduced to €300-€350/t, and John intends on feeding less than 100kg/cow this year.

Grants under the Organic Capital Investment Scheme under TAMS II, are available to adapt buildings to organic standards, his existing buildings are adequate but he may look to apply for specific machinery in the next couple of years.

Overall he is confident that any loss in production will be offset by reduced operating costs, a premium price for his milk and the organic farming payment.

John feels that organic dairying presents a huge opportunity for Ireland. "Instead of relying on volatile far flung markets such as China, we should be targeting faster growing and more lucrative markets in the EU for organic products.

"This market has shown itself to be more reliable and secure, which is essential for farmers to remain profitable, while achieving our climate change obligations and giving substance to Ireland's clean green image," said John.

He is carrying on the environmental legacy left by his father PJ, who won a farming environmental award in 1993, while at the same time keeping his eye firmly on keeping the farm profitable.

Grace Maher is development officer with IOFGA, www.iofga.org

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