Organic dairy production
There is currently strong market demand for organic milk. Joe Kelleher and Elaine Leavy, Teagasc Specialists, discuss how organic dairy production can be profitable. They suggest that good clover sward content and soil fertility are key to maintaining a higher stocking rate.
Organic dairying is a relatively small but growing sector within the dairy industry in Ireland. Latest figures from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) show that there are 62 organic dairy operators with an average herd size of 79 cows (2019). Organic dairy farming offers an excellent opportunity as a profitable enterprise option but success is dependent on the adoption of best practice organic methods and having a market price secured for organic milk. Important issues include grassland management, winter feeding (especially for winter milk producers), housing and cow health.
The market for organic milk looks positive. There are five main processors (Arrabawn, Aurivo, Glenisk, The Little Milk Company and The Village Dairy) handling most of the organic milk. Some individual farmers also bottle and sell direct. Demand at present exists for both organic summer and particularly winter milk. Premium prices are available for organic milk compared to conventional milk with relatively larger premiums available for winter milk. Contracts are available from some of the processors. In recent years winter milk price has been 55–60 c/litre for five months. Summer milk price has ranged from 35–44 c/litre.
Organic dairy farming compares favourably to conventional systems. On a return per litre basis, some of the most profitable dairy farmers in the country are farming organically. This is clearly in evidence at Teagasc/DAFM organic demonstration farm walks. Maintaining high output levels, coupled with lower production costs, and achieving a premium market price for milk contribute to higher margins on organic farms.
There is a stocking limit of 170 kg nitrogen (N)/ha for organic dairy production. Organic farming is being practiced successfully in Ireland at stocking rates up to this level. Average stocking rate is in the region of 1.4 LU/ha. The level of clover grown on-farm correlates strongly with the stock carrying capacity of the farm.
Organic conversion period
Grass based farms go through a 24-month conversion period on the land during which time it must be managed to full organic standards but milk cannot be supplied to an organic market. All producers must register with an organic certification body at the start of the conversion period. The cows must be managed to full organic health and welfare/ housing standards and fed to full organic standards (100% feed from organic sources) for at least the last six months of conversion. Note: from the conversion start date, all feed must be GMO-free.
Housing and bedding
More space is generally required compared to conventional standards. In organic farming, animals must have access to a bedded area. A 100% slatted area is not permitted. Cubicles are also permitted but they must have dry bedded material on top of the cubicle. Rubber mats alone on cubicle beds are not a substitute for bedding. Straw, sawdust (un-treated) and woodchips for bedding of animals are permitted.
An animal health plan is prepared by your veterinary surgeon and submitted as part of the conversion plan prior to conversion. In essence, animals are treated if a treatment is required but under more formal arrangements. Withdrawal periods may have to be doubled or trebled under organic standards. For mastitis, antibiotics can be used in clinical cases with supervision from a vet and where no other treatments would be effective. Two courses of antibiotics within 12 months are permitted, otherwise the cow is removed from the milking herd.
Good clover swards (especially white clover for grazing and red clover for quality silage), and targeted use of lime, farmyard manure and slurry mean that coping without chemical fertiliser can be managed effectively. Cattle slurry (from conventional grassland based farms), dairy sludge, organic/free range poultry manure and certain mineral fertilisers are amongst the fertilisers that can be imported onto organic farms.
Organic farming can be very profitable. There is currently strong demand from some processors for organic milk. With good levels of clover, stocking rates can be maintained at 1.4 LU/ha. Soil fertility is important in establishing good clover sward content.
If you liked this article you can read more like it in the Moorepark Open Day Booklet 2021 - Irish Dairying - Delivering Sustainability (PDF).
Learn more about the research work carried out in Teagasc Moorepark here.
The Teagasc Organic Specialists are hosting a series of Autumn organic webinars covering various technical aspects of organic farming. The first of these webinars takes place on Wednesday 22nd September at 7.30pm, focusing on the role of multi species swards on Irish organic farms. Find out more and Register here