Joe Nolan cut his ewe numbers and increased his tillage area when he went organic – and he’s finding life much easier
Farming top-quality land provides options, and it certainly helped Joe Nolan decide that switching to organic might be a good fit for him.
“Converting the farm last March with the Irish Organic Association worked out perfectly for me in terms of balancing sheep numbers and available feed,” says Joe, who has been a sheep farmer for 19 years on his 250ac in Fenagh, Co Carlow.
“At one point I was lambing over 900 ewes, and operating such an intensive lambing period was beginning to become less appealing.
“Reducing sheep numbers and introducing more tillage was really the aim before converting to organic. This year I am lambing 650 mature ewes and 180 ewe lambs.
“I have 60 pedigree Charollais ewes, and I sell mainly hogget rams from the house. I also have 10 Blue Texel ewes. The commercial flock is a mixture of Mule, Belclare, Lleyn, and Highlander breeds.
“The pedigrees lamb inside, with the commercial flock lambing outside from the beginning of March.
“Essentially the flock are small white ewes with good worm resistance. For the past 10 years I have been doing faecal sampling to monitor worm burden; that is an essential part of my strategy now as an organic farmer as I cannot use Noromection.
“Overall, there have been no animal welfare problems and they are managed in much the same way, all of which is outlined in an Animal Health Plan when you convert.”
The original plan was to reduce sheep numbers in the autumn, but Joe’s father (also called Joe) died in November, resulting in a higher number of hoggets on the farm through the winter.
“Organic is something I was always interested in,” says Joe. “My dad operated a mixed farm, and tillage was his area of expertise so I know this farm can grow really good crops.
“My biggest concern converting to organic was swapping the direct drill for the plough, I had been direct drilling for the past decade and it worked really well — it was much easier to give up the fertiliser than the direct drill!
“In order to manage weeds I am undersowing everything with grass and clover. Last year I grew 7ac of oats and 11ac of Combicrop, which was peas and barley.
“I undersowed it with a grass clover mix from Western Seeds. The oats yielded 2.2t/ac and the Combicrop did 3t/ac so for a first attempt it was very good.
“My original plan was to build a grain store but I couldn’t get anyone to build it so in the end I converted an old round-roofed silage pit into a grain store.
“The oats were so dry when they were cut that they heated a little but the Combicrop was fine.
“We didn’t roll the peas, just fed it whole to the lambs all winter and the ewes are getting it now during lambing season.
“The arable silage I grew was undersown with red clover and that was baled and fed to ewes and store lambs. We harvested 45 bales from 8ac.
“I didn’t get to cut the red clover in September before the rain came so instead it was grazed lightly with 400 store lambs. In July I ploughed 20ac and sowed a mix of kale, vetch, stubble turnip and rape which grew OK considering it was very dry afterwards. We got seven weeks of grazing off it.”
The lambing period for the pedigrees has also changed. Previously everything was lambed in a manic 10-day window in March; now the pedigrees started lambing in the middle of February and they will finish in early April.
“I am enjoying the change to a more staggered lambing season and it is very manageable,” says Joe. “As an organic farmer I can’t sponge ewes so that is something you need to plan for in terms of lambing times.”
This farm has good nutrient levels with everything in index three or four. Liming has also been important to keep nutrients in balance, particularly when growing sugar beet in the past.
Now as an organic farm, growing as much of its own feed requirements as possible is a priority.
“I am lucky here that I can grow crops,” says Joe. “That is not the case for all sheep farmers so they need to plan feed sources, as it is not as simple as dropping down to the merchant to buy a few bags of feed when you are organic.
“You need to be prepared to forward buy to make sure you have the quantity and quality that you need.
“Another learning for me was getting used to paying up-front for organic seed when previously you could get it on credit at the merchants.
“That said myself and my father did remark on the fantastic quality of the organic seed we got last year and it did perform very well, which is encouraging.”
Joe plans to possibly reduce the sheep flock to 550 ewes and increase tillage area to 50ac.
“I would like to grow more cereals as I enjoy it and with more farmers switching to organic, the demand for feed is increasing,” he says.
“I work with two excellent contractors Seamus Coogan and Stephen Eustace which makes things easier. This year I will grow 10ac of oats and 20ac of Combicrop for my own use.
“I am currently feeding approximately 300kg a day and the ewes are milking well on it. To grow more cereals, you would need a contract and proper storage facilities, which I might look at developing with support from TAMS 3.
“The lambs here were always sold to ICM in Camolin, so before I converted to organic, I sat down with them to plan for organic supply.
“I would need the same market guarantee to grow more organic cereals but there is certainly potential for livestock farmers to work with cereal farmers to increase feed supply chains.”
Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Association, email@example.com