'Going organic suits my land base and the cow numbers suit a robot'

Tom Phelan
Tom Phelan
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

Tom Phelan admits he has a steep learning curve ahead of him as he moves from conventional beef farming into organic dairying.

However, after putting a lot of thought and time into it, the Mountrath beef farmer admits it is a big move, but says that the time is right for change.

He has experienced many farming systems over the years from Friesian bull calves to sucklers, however, he points out there is no "silver bullet". "Beef in this country cannot be produced under €4/kg," he said, adding he felt it wasn't really sustainable in the longer term.

Currently, he is finishing steers with some spring lambs. However, these are being phased out with 75 calves purchased last summer.

He applied to go into conversion after the Department of Agriculture opened the scheme just before Christmas, with the aim of milking in the summer of 2020.

After visiting a number of farms, he is opting to install a robotic milker as it will reduce the amount of labour required. "We debated whether to convert existing buildings or to go with a greenfield site. We changed our minds about three times," he said.

Robotic milking can increase energy costs
Robotic milking can increase energy costs

"Now, it is looking like we are going back to a greenfield site. In the event the whole organic thing doesn't work out, we'd like to go for greater numbers, so we want to leave room to put in another robot," he said, adding they wanted to be practical, not negative. "There are so few people doing it (organics), that there is an element of experimentation to it.

"During my research, it seemed to tick almost all of the boxes for me," he said. "It suited my land base, the numbers suit a robot," he said, adding he was aiming to start with 60 cows. He is in the process of forming a partnership with his son Alan, who is in full-time employment off farm.

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Tom intends to calve down in late summer, with the aim of keeping the volume of meal fed as close to a tonne per cow as possible. He is also in the process of trying to source dairy sludge as well.

"Over the last 10 years I've been following a reseeding programme. I would never have been overly stocked so I did incorporate clover into all the pastures, so I'm very lucky that way that we are well set up," he said.

The 100ac Co Laois farm, including 9ac of forestry, is currently split by a main road, with lower quality pasture that often floods in the winter located at the opposite side from the main farmyard. "Calving in the summer from both labour and general comfort of both man and beast is another attraction.

"I know I'm in a positive mindset, I hope this time in two years I'll be in an equally positive mindset," he quipped.

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