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'My aim is to produce milk from what I grow - and I'm fine with lower yields'

Sean Condon's low-input system bearing fruit since switch as demand for organic grows


Big change: Sean Condon from Fanningstown, Crecora, Co Limerick made the switch to organic farming in 2005

Big change: Sean Condon from Fanningstown, Crecora, Co Limerick made the switch to organic farming in 2005

Big change: Sean Condon from Fanningstown, Crecora, Co Limerick made the switch to organic farming in 2005

Fifteen years ago, dairy farmer Sean Condon realised he had to make some changes if he wanted to stay afloat.

With about ten years left of the milk quota system, he took a step back to evaluate his set-up, and he knew he had to do something drastic.

Doubling the number of cows he was milking for a similar income was not a prospect he relished. His family were young and he wanted a life/work balance so he decided to move to once-a-day milking (OAD).

Sean, from Fanningstown, Crecora, Co Limerick, had always had an interest in organic farming; he looked at it seriously and decided to also make the transition to organic dairy production.

Certified by the Irish Organic Association, he obtained his full organic symbol in 2007.

Dairy breeds and replacements

The dairy herd are a mixture of breeds including Friesian, Jersey and Norwegian Reds. He uses an AI Aberdeen Angus bull. The average herd EBI is €130, compared to the national average of €106.

Sean is currently milking 65 cows and has an average livestock unit of 1.3/ha. He owns 40ha and rents an additional 19ha; of this 59ha the milking platform is 36ha.

"The replacement rates are lower in OAD milking as there is not as much pressure on the cows., I think that working in this way actually gives an extra lactation and I average seven lactations per cow," he says.

One of the breeding priorities for organic dairy farmers is to get heifers in calf at a suitable age, and Sean performs well with 85pc of his heifers calved at 22-26 months compared to the national average of 70pc.

Spring calving

For many dairy farmers milking through the winter months is not appealing, yet the consumer wants milk 365 days a year so continuity of supply is a necessity.

On Sean's farm the emphasis is on producing as much milk as possible from forage, and winter milking challenges this system as feeding meal is required during the winter months to supplement forage.

In 2012 Sean and a number of other dairy farmers started the Little Milk Company and he switched back to spring milk production and still received a premium for his milk.

"I operate a low-input system here that does not rely on importing expensive feed due to the environmental impacts associated with that," he explains.

"My aim is to produce milk from what I grow on the farm, and while this means lower yields, that is something that I am fine with as it is all about inputs and outputs and attempting to achieve a balance in that system."

Grazing and silage management

Sean has re-seeded 75pc of the farm over the past ten years with both red and white clover and perennial ryegrass.

Approximately 36ha are in the grazing platform and as cows calve in March they are moved outdoors to graze. The paddocks are between 1-1½ha and are rotated throughout the grazing season.

He spreads slurry from the overwintering animals on the grazing ground as early as possible in the year, and all the farmyard manure is spread on the silage ground, of approximately 14ha.

Weather depending the silage is cut in early June and early July and yields on average 7-9 bales an acre.

In addition, Sean brings in 250-300 round bales of straw per year from a conventional source for bedding in the housing period.

"Straw is very important, and it has a dual purpose as a fertiliser and for bedding," he says. "In particular it is a source of potassium, which is essential for good silage production. I would certainly have mined nutrients over the past 13 years if I had not been using straw.

"During the winter I bed the animals every second day, which is not particularly labour-intensive.

Animal health management

The farm is not intensively stocked and in general there are few health issues. Like all organic farmers Sean must have an Animal Health Plan to outline his preventative health approach for the dairy herd and what steps will be taken when problems arise.

"I was never one for bottles and needles anyway so reducing the veterinary inputs when I went organic was not a concern," Sean says. "I used to vaccinate for leptospirosis and scour in calves but I stopped all that in 2006 and things have worked out fine.

"Obviously if issues arise you can use veterinary inputs and then increase your withdrawal periods. However, generally I have good animal health with the closed system that I operate."

Milk outlets

Sean has three outlets for his milk products: the Little Milk Company, who make a range of cheeses; the Natural Milk Company; and a local organic farmer rearing beef cattle. The milk sold to the Little Milk Company is paid based on constituents and not volume, which Sean feels is a good way to pay.

He sells raw milk under his own brand Temple Roe Farm to the Urban Co-op in Limerick and to the Natural Milk Company.

"I am adjusting my calving system to calve down some cows in the autumn to enable continuity of supply for my raw milk markets," he says. "I undergo testing twice monthly to check for pathogens and bacteria as hygiene is hugely important when supplying raw milk.

"In addition, I carry out stringent testing for listeria, which enables me to use a longer shelf life of one week on the product.

"There is a specific market for this product but overall there is a growing demand for all organic dairy products, which is something farmers need to look at - and seriously consider making the switch to organic production."

Lingering in the denial phase is not good enough - climate emergency is not going away

While Covid-19 presents unprecedented challenges for everyone, the farming community is also faced with the climate crisis, writes Grace Maher.

Increased flooding, droughts and crop failures are predicted to become the norm. Agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change yet it is also one of the first sectors to suffer when climate extremes occur.

The agricultural industry needs to rise to the climate challenge and adopt climate-friendly farming techniques at production level - and this must be carried through to processing and distribution.

The EU definition of organic production will change slightly in new regulations which come into force in January 2021 to give recognition of its climate change attributes.

The regulations state: "Organic production combines best environmental and climate action practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources and the application of high animal welfare standards and high production standards…"

Danone own Horizon Organic, who are based in the US. Horizon milk comes from more than 600 organic family farms across 22 US states; the average herd size is 90 cows. Recently Danone announced that Horizon Organic milk has committed to be carbon-positive across its supply chain in the next five years.

Horizon is the world's largest certified organic dairy brand, and by using innovative technologies they are taking on the difficult challenge of making dairy production climate-friendly.

We need to see more action like this taken by all stakeholders in agriculture, and lingering in the 'denial phase', to borrow a term from the Corona Virus pandemic, is simply not good enough: the climate emergency is not going away.

Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Association,

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