Farm Ireland

Sunday 22 April 2018

From sucklers to organic sheep - 'The transition was very smooth'

George Best hasn't looked back since he switched from sucklers to organic sheep farming

George and Myra Best have a flock of 380 on their Co Leitrim farm.
George and Myra Best have a flock of 380 on their Co Leitrim farm.
Leitrim farmer George Best with his Shepherdsmate mobile sheep handling unit.
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

It is over a decade since George and Myra Best took the plunge from sucklers to organic sheep farming.

It was a business decision that enticed the Co Leitrim farmers to change to the system they viewed as a lower cost and more profitable enterprise.

"We're in organic farming since '03 and we've 380 ewes on farm. The transition worked well, it worked very smoothly. We were suckler farming previous to that and we did the changeover as we thought it was more profitable.

"Suckler farming was a more intense system," George explained on the couple's 150ac farm on the shores of the popular fishing spot, Garadice Lake, on the outskirts of Ballinamore, Co Leitrim.

"The sheep farming is less intensive, it is a low cost system and inputs are a lot less. There is definitely quite a bit of work when they are lambing but once you get them lambed and out to field it is less work.

"I like the idea of organics - producing things naturally."

The farm is now part of the organic farming scheme which has an increased payment of €220/ha in conversion and €170 fully converted.

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George says there is a little additional work with topping to control weeds and a little more paperwork to comply with the organic regulations. Yet the pair have reseeded paddocks and are using clover to try and maximise their grass.

They are also experimenting with Suffolk and Hampshire rams to get lambs to reach finishing weights earlier.

Soil fertility is also key on the farm and they import cattle and dairy sludge, allowed under organic standards, to maintain P and K levels on the farm.

They are now on the countdown to lambing with the first of the Belclare x Texel ewes due on March 5 and lambing expected to last 35 days, with around 1.85 lambs expected per ewe. There is an automatic feeding in the two sheds of sheep pens, with meal starting around seven weeks before lambing increasing from .3kg to 1kg.

George explained they'll be out to the fields within one to two days of lambing. The farm is well laid out and they invested in a TAMS fencing grant to create an 18 paddock system to try and get the most out of the grass growth and deliver optimum fattening.

There is also anadvantage to using the rotation 18 paddock system as it reduces the worm burden.

They found they need to be more pro-active rather than reactive when it comes to animal health.

They take dung samples regularly to indicate if there are any problems, and follow a health plan set out by their vet.

"Fluke is our biggest problem. In a lot of land all over Ireland it is a problem," he said. "I like the sheep as with the wet seasons they cause no damage to the ground.


"We sell most of our ewe lambs to other organic farmers. This way we can get a good sale for our ewe lambs organically and the ram lambs we try and sell to the factory," he said, adding they were involved with the Sheep Technology Adoption Programme (STAP) through Leitrim Organic Farmers Co-op headed by John Brennan . "We keep around 20pc as replacements."

It hasn't all been plain sailing as George reveals there are problems at times in accessing a processor for the organic lamb with the ICM in Camolin, Co Wexford currently the only factory processing it. Last year, the farmers found they couldn't sell the lamb organically and it went into the conventional system. They feel more needs to be done by Bord Bia and the processors to find additional markets as the flock expands.

"Every year I sold organic lambs but last year I couldn't do it," he said, adding the factory wasn't accepting the lambs due to having only a market for 100 to 150 lambs per week.

"The market is very difficult to find and there isn't a large enough number of organic lambs being slaughtered in the country. I sold them back into the conventional, which is what I didn't want to do or like to do but I had to do it."

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