The availability of organic protein crops is a big factor in determining viability for livestock farmers, particularly pig and poultry producers. Organic regulations require a GM-free feed which further increases costs.
Much of the organic feed used in Ireland has to be imported.
While consumer demand for organic pig and poultry continues to grow, farmers are struggling to source feed at affordable prices. Those who import feed from Britain are also faced with the ongoing sterling exchange issue.
While the feed situation is worrying for the sector it also offers an opportunity to cereal farmers to look seriously at converting to organic production.
Soyabean is generally the main protein component in organic feed, this can vary from 15-25pc depending on the animal requirement and particular mix. Pea, rapeseed and potato protein can also be present to varying degrees.
Due to environmental concerns with soyabean production, attempts have been made at EU level to research effective alternatives. 2016 has been declared the International Year of the Pulse, in an attempt to encourage more farmers to consider growing them.
Pulses include the grain legumes - pea, fava bean and lupins - all of which can be grown in Ireland.
Last year Ireland decided to use €3m of the Basic Payment under CAP to provide a coupled payment for protein crops. The Protein Aid Scheme delivered payments of €280/ha to farmers which should make some inroad in redressing the imbalance between production and demand.
It is challenging to grow single protein crops such as peas organically as they do not compete well with weed and pathogen attacks, and as a result many farmers instead favour growing Combicrops.
High production costs for protein crops grown in the EU, combined with variable yields and poor varieties available, means that in the short term it will be difficult to displace imported crops.
However, in the longer term the ability of grain legumes to fix nitrogen by converting soil atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by the plant, should not be ignored in increasing whole farm production.
Margaret McDonnell has an organic poultry farm in the Curragh, Co Kildare, where she specialises in table bird production. Raised on a farm in the West of Ireland, she was always interested in the idea of rearing organic chickens.
She began with 50 chickens in 1999 and was very conscious of the idea of starting small and learning as you go along. Then in 2000 she converted to organic production with IOFGA.
Gradually over time, and with continual farm investment production increased, and now she kills approximately 500 chickens a week. "For anyone starting out as an organic poultry farmer there are two things that you must get right, firstly where you are going to get your birds slaughtered and secondly your feed source.
"Eventually we decided to set up a slaughter unit on the farm as it was becoming difficult to find a facility that would deal with a relatively small producer, so it is purpose built and suits our needs. Sourcing a regular supply of organic feed has been difficult, and over the years we tried many things, such as getting farmers to grow crops like wheat for us.
"We also imported directly from the UK however the sterling/euro fluctuations made it too variable. If the exchange rate was poor, it was difficult to pass that price onto customers as I could not change the price from week to week.
"Now our feed is imported from Holland and we get it directly from Redmills, it is good quality and is nutritionally consistent which is important for flock management," said Margaret. The lack of Irish grown feed is a barrier to the expansion of the sector but like most things is a case of supply and demand.
Poultry producers like Margaret are keen to support other farmers growing cereal and protein crops for animal feed. It would be great to have more Irish suppliers on the market as it would give them a premium reliable outlet for their crops and also give farmers like myself more options as it would bring more competition to the market," she said.
Every four weeks Margaret brings in approximately 2,000 chicks at a day old, this varies slightly in winter as sales are higher. "We require 300t of feed a year. The birds are initially fed the organic chicken starter which currently costs €680/t, then when they are ready they transfer to the finisher feed at €526/t. These prices compare to conventional systems where the starter feed is currently €470/t and finisher feed is €445/t. So organic production costs more, as the feed is more expensive and the birds generally live twice as long, that is what makes an organic chicken more expensive than a conventional chicken," said Margaret.
Sales for Margaret's chickens have increased steadily. "In the Celtic Tiger years, sales were crazy with many people buying organic chickens as it was seen as the thing to do. Now I find that people are much better educated, they are buying organic chickens because they value the meat, they will use the meat and also the bones to make soups and stock. People are looking for better quality meat and are willing to pay a bit more for it.
"Our business as grown steadily and organically, which is what we had hoped for. It is hard work, you are very tied to the farm but we love what we do here and we are proud to produce a quality organic product, while at the same time we are conscious of making it as affordable as possible," said Margaret.
The majority of the table birds produced by Margaret are sold via three outlets. She wholesales chickens to Coolanowle Organic Farm, Declan Carty and Jim Ryan all of whom sell at farmers' markets around the country.
Margaret also sells to butchers and specialist retail stores, and finally she sells to a small amount of private customers who buy in larger quantities.
Grace Maher is the development officer with IOFGA firstname.lastname@example.org