Wexford couple on why plans to convert organic farm to 100pc stockless makes sense on many levels
As I write this I can hear the drone of combines in the fields around me as the 2017 harvest continues. Yields so far may be slightly lower than anticipated, but the demand for straw is up so overall it may be a good year for tillage farmers.
The last four years have seen global grain surpluses hit prices. Organic tillage farmers have fared better because the market is less volatile, crops are in demand and prices are good.
But the number of farmers converting to organic tillage remains low. There were some new entrants this year but without an Organic Farming Scheme (OFS), farmers are reluctant to make the switch.
Des and Olive Thorpe, from Old Ross in Co Wexford, operate one of the longest-established organic farms in Ireland and have been certified with IOFGA for 30 years.
They have pioneered organic methods and techniques in this country and continue to do so as they explore new ways to make the farm more sustainable both environmentally and economically.
A mixed farm that has produced beef, sheep, cereals and vegetables over the years, the Thorpes have tried many different methods and enterprises but the current model seems to be the one that has worked best for them.
Arable crops are a key component to the viability of the farm and this year there are 50 acres in organic oats that are sold to Flahavan's.
Des is currently researching turning the farm stockless, using plant matter only to build and retain fertility on the farm.
They grow nine acres of field-scale vegetables: broccoli, kale, cauliflower and leeks. This is a profitable but labour-intensive enterprise. It provides a good break in the rotations as Des will only grow oats in the same field for two years running.
"Converting the farm to a stockless operation makes sense to me on many levels, but it is certainly challenging on an organic farm as the permitted inputs are limited," he says. "However, I feel that it can be done and I intend to make the shift gradually to ensure productivity on the farm does not suffer.
"Over the years I have continually done soil tests so I am aware of where index levels may be low and have taken that into account. I am looking at how organic plant matter can work with the soil biology and release nutrients to the crops when needed.
"It certainly will be different than relying on animal manure, but there is good research out there to show it works so I am exploring all the options to give it the best chance to succeed here."
In conventional tillage, the majority of farmers run a stockless system and all fertility inputs are brought onto the farm.
In an organic system the focus is on building soil fertility through the addition of animal manures and/or plant residues.
Maintaining good soil indexes are key to productivity so soil sampling is important.
Some farmers do operate a stockless system in organics, but the majority of those doing that are importing farmyard manure from neighbouring farms usually in exchange for straw.
A small number of farmers are not using animal manures and instead are using green manures or cover crops. These are plants grown and incorporated back into the soil to add nutrients such as nitrogen and build soil structure.
This type of organic cereal production is certainly more challenging, and with average costs of €100/ac to establish green manure crops it is a system of farming that must be well managed to ensure good returns.
Rotations are another key aspect of organic cereal production to reduce weed, pest and disease pressure.
Crop rotation also allows for spreading the fertility requirements and provides the capacity to build fertility.
Most farmers operate a four/five year rotation system, which depending on their crops will include grass/clover as a break crop and to build fertility.
Some organic farmers have adopted these methods. While crops sown under this system work well in terms of competing with weeds, one problem emerging in organics is grass growth in the cereal crops.
As organic farmers cannot use herbicides to kill grass, research is showing that sowing crops into an established green manure may be a good approach to combat grass growth.
Yields and inputs
Yields are lower in organic tillage, with an average of 2t/ac; however inputs are significantly lower, and crop prices are higher.
Oats is the largest organic cereal crop grown in Ireland, accounting for 61pc of total production. The majority of it is processed for porridge oatlets by Flahavan's, who require an additional 2,000 tonnes to meet their current market demands.
Oats is one of the easier crops to produce, with barley being slightly trickier as it struggles to compete with weeds. That said, organic farmers are growing it for Boortmalt for use in organic whiskey.
Once all costs are accounted for, organic cereal production remains a profitable enterprise despite the lower yields. The maintenance payment of €170/ha under the OFS ensures its viability. Farmers are also eligible for the Protein Aid Scheme (€246/ha in 2016).
There is also demand for crops to supply increasing organic livestock numbers. If concentrates are fed to organic livestock, they must be GM-free and organically certified. Imported feed costs in the region of €500/t depending on protein content. This could easily be sourced in Ireland if there was enough supply.
Overall, however, the message is that in the absence of an OFS it will remain difficult to encourage farmers to convert to organic cereal production despite market demands.
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