Farm Ireland

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Opinion: Why suckler farmers should explore organic opportunities?

Farmer of the year, Tom Dunne, Laois with Dearbhail Brady, marketing director, Zurich General Insurance. Photo: Douglas O’Connor

Gerry Giggins

My exposure to organic beef and lamb production has increased exponentially in recent years.

Not so long ago I would have been hardpressed to identify many commercial organic beef producers. Nowadays, I am working with an increasing number of committed organic beef producers that are running profitable farming enterprises.

In the past, I have somewhat dismissed organic beef production systems. In a lot of cases, grassland management, forage quality, poor daily liveweight gains and the high cost of concentrate supplementation made it difficult to operate an efficient and profitable enterprise.

However, what I have witnessed in recent years is that organic beef production has moved on to a new level.

A number of organic producers are now implementing grassland management practices that match those of the top conventional beef farms.

Early grazing techniques are common, with cattle achieving up to 1.25kg/ day until mid-summer.

This improvement in grassland management has also had the knock-on effect of improving winter forage quality.

In an organic beef finishing system, concentrate input costs can be up to 100pc higher than those of a conventional beef finishing system. Where a conventional beef finishing blend can be purchased at approximately €240/ tonne this winter, an organic beef finishing blend is costing approximately €450/ tonne.

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Therefore the requirement for high quality forage is much greater in an organic system.

Grass silage produced from organic ryegrass swards that I have tested this winter have been of excellent quality (minimum 70pc DMD) and all excellently preserved.

As well as producing excellent quality forage, progressive organic producers are looking to further lower their production costs by growing energy and protein crops.

Two examples of organic beef finishers producing such crops are Tom Dunne and the Houlihan family both farming in county Laois.

Tom was an overall winner in the Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year awards and the Holohans were winners in the beef category.

This winter, Tom is feeding a combination of home grown, moist crimped wheat and peas. This combi crop was sown in spring and harvested in late August at 30pc moisture.

With an energy density of 12.9 MJ/kg/ DM and a protein content of 19pc, this crop cost €230/ tonne to produce.

Tom has used this mix in conjunction with grass silage to both grow store cattle and finish his beef cattle during the winter period. The cereal component of this cropping mixture could be alternated with either oats or barley. The use of barley or oats will result in a slightly lower energy finished feed mix, but could be suitable on slightly poorer soil types.

IOFGA states the ruminant feed requirement is approximately 12,000t, of which 3,000t is being produced here. Ireland grows around 6,000t of organic cereals here, 3,000t of it is oats for human consumption.

In recent years, an average of between 8,000 and 10,000 tonnes of organic feed have been imported annually.

Some farmers within the hard pressed tillage sector may see an opportunity to supply the growing organic livestock feed market and convert to organic production.

Unlike the rest of Europe, the majority of Irish organic beef originates from within our suckler herd.

Countries like Denmark, Germany and Holland have significant organic dairy cow numbers within their national herd and are the main suppliers of organic beef throughout Europe.

Some Irish suckler herds should explore the opportunity to convert to organic status without having to alter their production systems significantly.

By doing so they would benefit from increased direct payments per hectare and hopefully meet a growing market demand. The leading organic beef brand, the Good Herdsman, have brought on the sector significantly through improved marketing of the end product. They also provide a rewarding pricing structure.

Finally, I believe that if it is to develop further the organic sector needs to address the issue of the imbalance of cattle available for slaughter in the autumn versus the shortages witnessed during the winter and spring months.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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