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Follow one man's journey to organic milk production


John and Paddy McHugh with Mette Vaarst from Denmark

John and Paddy McHugh with Mette Vaarst from Denmark

John and Paddy McHugh with Mette Vaarst from Denmark

With demand for organic dairy products seeing continued growth, production is struggling to keep up. New Zealand has had a huge surge in farmers converting to organic production, while European and US farmers lag behind.

Earlier this year I featured John McHugh, who converted to organic farming in January. Catching up with him at his recent IOFGA Dairy Field Talk event, he outlines how his first year in organics has played out.

Farming in Clondarrig, just outside of Portlaoise, John has been farming full-time since 2001. In his first year, the 35-year-old has not only embraced organic production principles wholeheartedly, but has gone a step further and really changed how he is growing feed on his farm, by re-seeding 25pc of the land with herbal leys.

Herbal ley seed costs an average €100/ac and John is enthusiastic about the cost benefits.

Why convert to organic?

"The main reason for doing this is soil health," he says. "Growing different plants together works well in grassland, creating synergies to increase mineral content of the feed and biological activity in the soil. The end result is improved herd health.

"To fully embrace the concept of organic farming I want to move to a system whereby the health of the cow is the ultimate driver of productivity on the farm. To accomplish this the quality of the feed has to be a top priority. There's lots of research to suggest that herbal leys improve herd health and that is why I opted for this system."

Herbal leys

Herbal leys include plants such as chicory, ribgrass, yarrow, sweet clover, sainfoin, and bridsfoot trefoil, all of which have medicinal properties and optimise nutrients often not available solely from grass.

The farm certainly looked top class with healthy looking animals and herb incorporated grassland.

John remains positive about the role it will play in soil fertility and animal health.

"This is new territory for me," he admits. "I have no doubt I will need to tweak and change my system as the farm evolves but for now this approach makes sense and my aim is to grow the best feed that I can."

John has also conducted an Albrecht soil test on one third of the farm to get an accurate picture of nutrient availability.

Combining grass measurement with silage and compost analysis should give him a coherent picture of system performance.

Herd health

For many farmers looking to convert to organics, herd health management remains a key concern.

John had some issues this year with milk fever and hoose. However, there were no losses from these and he feels it is important to allow the animals to build up a natural immunity.

He used to vaccinate for IBR and leptospirosis but this year decided to withhold that. John feels that "stress in a herd plays a major part in diseases and I am trying to minimise stress in this new system.

"To reduce the parasite burden I am experimenting with what is called 'mob grazing', whereby you essentially graze higher covers of grass with a high density group of animals for a short duration, and allow them to trample a portion of the grass into the soil as a mulch which apparently improves soil quality and carbon storage while increasing productivity."

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The cell count was high on the farm last year and has remained so this year. John is keen to move away from the use of any antibiotics and therefore is looking at homeopathic options but may have to cull some cows at the end of the year.

Right option for him

While still early days, John is happy with his decision to farm organically. "A lot of research is needed on how to maximise productivity on organic farms but I believe if you balance the soil with productivity demands, you are on the right track," he says.

"In conventional dairying, input costs continue to rise while prices for farmers do not. In New Zealand some have labelled the dairy sector 'dirty dairy' - will that happen here?

"It is not a long-term sustainable farming system either environmentally or economically," he adds. "I was milking 160 cows and had a fertiliser bill in excess of €33k, now I am milking 106 cows, have reduced my bills and receive an Organic Farming Scheme payment.

"My yield is lower - last year average yield was 488kg milk solids on 300kg of meal, this year it should be 400kgMS on 70kg of meal, but I feel that my farm will become more productive in the longer term.

"The hidden costs of using chemical fertilisers with emissions and run-off are not counted, however it is something that we all pay for in other ways.

"I also think that in Ireland we need to put some real weight behind our green image and really produce clean natural food, that is why I have opted for organic farming," concludes John.

Grace Maher is development officer with the IOFGA,

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