To get a glimpse of what farmers think about a particular topic, farm tours are the place to be.
The large crowd and atmosphere at a recent Farm Walk in Roscommon told me everything I needed to know about farmers’ interest in organic produce at the moment.
A massive increase in organic payments, increased concern for the environment and rising farm input costs are prompting many farmers to consider switching.
Cattle and tillage farmer Mark Hanley from near Roscommon switched to organic in 2015. Summing up his journey so far, he simply says, “The bottom line is that the bottom line is better.”
“I was always willing to look at different things and try different things. The farm would never have received much fertilizer. There was a lot of catching up to do.
“I remember reseeding 10ac in a year. I did everything right, or so I thought. I sprayed it, plowed it and put 10-10-20 fertilizer on it.
“After a year or so I thought it wasn’t producing nice grass at all and I found that the manure from the cattle stayed in the field half the year. Every time I asked what the problem could be I was told it needed 10-10-20 or 18-6-12.”
Instead, Mark decided to stop applying fertilizers altogether and became interested in organic products. After taking a few farm tours, he said he would give it a try.
“It’s a two-year transition on paper, but it’s taking more than two years. I would say it lasts a lifetime. Ideally, you would like to become the son or daughter of an organic farmer.
“It takes a long time to get involved and you explore things you never thought would interest you. It really never ends,” he says.
Before he switched to organic, Mark ran a human milk system, sold high quality Charolais weaners on the market and processed the heifers into beef.
“Since going organic I’ve had fewer cows and I finish everything,” he says, adding that he’s added a tillage farm, while now also buying camp lambs to thicken the sod and check the docks.
Organic farmers must adhere to a variety of strict rules and regulations; One of the most important for anyone contemplating a changeover is the housing requirements.
Organic requires a littered lying area for the animals with special space requirements. Farmers can have slatted stalls, but there must also be a bedded lying area.
Although Mark has his own straw, he buys and uses a full load of extra straw every year.
“A load of straw costs 1,000 euros, but I don’t care,” he says. “If you distribute that across the country, it will reduce the cost. I’ve found there’s a terrible difference with straw since I switched to organic. Some can soak really well and others can be terrible.
“I try to go to bed every day because you might miss a day because of the weather. You have to keep the udders of the cows clean. I use a little regularly,” he says.
Mark calves his cows in February and March and says it was easier to keep them in shape over the winter on dry litter than on slatted floors.
However, he says that if he were to start all over again, he might have postponed calving earlier in the winter because the cattle would be cleaner.
Despite this, he says he has had very few illnesses since going organic; he attributes this to the lower storage density in the hall.
Farming without chemical fertilizers can be one of the most difficult aspects of organic farming and underscores the importance of making the most of the fertilizer and manure produced on the farm.
“You can’t have an organic manure patch big enough,” says Mark, explaining that he mixes the manure on the farm at least three times a year to improve its quality as a fertilizer.
“There should probably be more mixing. You wouldn’t want straw strewn on the land.
“Most of it goes to farmland. I don’t put it on pasture unless I have it left over. It’s kind of precious.”
Red clover silage was an important addition to Mark’s farm as it produced high quality silage and allowed him to save on expensive food bills.
“The clover turns black in the ball… sometimes you’d think you had a ball of garbage,” says Mark, joking, “It’s like Guinness!
“There are no plans to use food here. Only if something is wrong with the weather or the farmer.”
Another big change at Mark’s farm since going organic was the purchase of an Angus bull, which allows him to finish the livestock sooner.
“I think the money is in the finishing. I have often thought about buying stores. I have a lot of weed, but I will actually increase the lambs at the end,” he says.
“I find it difficult to get advance sales in the market. I think everyone who has them will want to end them. There seem to be dropouts, but fewer stores are available.”
Booking cattle into the factory hasn’t been a problem for Mark, and he says most organic farmers know well in advance when their cattle will be fit.
“I know I’ll be killing April or May and by March I’ll be on the phone to the factory. They don’t lock you down to an exact week,” he says.
Happy with his organic journey so far, Mark says he will definitely stick with it.
“As more farmers get involved, the sector will grow and more larger food companies will take an interest in it. That can only be positive,” he says.
‘If you look at the ratio of profit and work, tillage is the right one’
Dry feed farmers considering a switch to organic should also consider adding an arable business, says Mark Hanley.
In recent years he has started planting and selling oats to Flahavan’s.
“I really like tillage. It would be nice to be in the Midlands, but I can’t change where the farm is. I grew 15-16ac oats last year and the plan was to get a batch for Flahavan’s.
“You have to fill the truck to make it economical and pay the contractor and I was hoping to keep 2-3t for myself.”
However, the return was meager.
“I was disappointed it didn’t fill the truck. I think the sowing date was too early. I seeded in September trying to pinch the weather but I think I paid the price. It will be in the second half of October this year.”
Despite the setback, Mark insists that organic tillage is financially beneficial.
“There’s not a lot of work involved. There’s a few rocks to pick, and I walk across the field after it’s sown, picking every dock I might see.
“If you look at the profit-to-work ratio, tillage is the right thing to do.”
However, it also has its challenges, and the biggest problem in its part of the world is access to a combine harvester.
“I almost lost crops because I didn’t have access to a combine. As with many things, that’s not a problem in a dry year, but it can be a nightmare in a wet year,” says Mark.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/beef/beef-farm-profiles/the-bottom-line-is-the-bottom-line-is-better-with-in-organic-farming-41981315.html “The bottom line is that organic farming is better overall”