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Organic Farming - is it an option?

Elaine Leavy, Teagasc Organic Specialist, talks us through the considerations when making the transition to organic farming.

Organic production is defined as “an overall system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, the application of high animal welfare standards and a production method in line with the preference of certain consumers for products produced using natural substances and processes”.

Irish organic food enjoys an excellent reputation both at home and especially across Europe. Latest figures show the organic retail food market in Ireland is now worth over €260 million annually (Source: Bord Bia, 2021). In the European Union, the market for organic food is worth €45 billion (2020). The largest markets exist in Germany (€15 billion euro), France (€12.7 billion), and Italy (€3.9 billion). This growth represents an opportunity for Irish farmers to supply more food that is organic.

At farm level in Ireland, the organic sector has experienced a large influx of new farmers in recent years with 2,200 farmers now farming organically including approximately 380 who entered conversion in spring 2022. About 70% of organic farmers are cattle farmers. Organically managed land now occupies approximately 2.5% of the total utilizable agricultural area (UAA) in the country, which is over a doubling in area compared to the previous decade. This compares with an average of 8.5% of UAA across the European Union.

Sean Doorley, Teagasc Advisor caught up with Joe Kelleher, Teagasc Organics Specialist at the Organics stand at #Ploughing2022. The key message at the stand is that organic farming can suit all soil types, whether you're on the most free draining soils or permanent pasture heavier soils. All soil types can fit into an organic farming system, the key is that you adjust your stocking rate to suit the system.

Consider Organic Farming as an Option

There is a perception that organic farming is difficult, involves a lot of red tape, is labour-intensive and returns are low. The reality is quite different. The best organic farmers, using good husbandry and management skills, can achieve stocking rates up to 170kg N/ha and healthy profits. In terms of paperwork, detailed record keeping is now common to all types of farming. Organic is a realistic option but if considering conversion be diligent in your research:

  • Talk to organic farmers, take an organic farming course, attend information meetings/farm walks and engage in family discussion.
  • Assess how organic conversion can be achieved on your farm and calculate the economic implications. Be absolutely committed to working to and abiding by, Organic Standards.

Organic Farming can suit all farm systems

There is stocking rate limit of 170 kg N/ha. Organic farming is being practised successfully in Ireland at stocking rates up to this level. The stocking rate of an organic farm will be determined by soil type, production capabilities and the lands stock carrying capacity.

On clover rich swards a farm can potentially stocked t between 1.5 and 2.0LU/Ha, but every field on the farm would have to have a clover content of >30% to allow this.   To produce this, excellent quality free draining soils, capable of growing white clover, red clover would be needed.

On farms with a large proportion of swards made up of permanent pastures could consider a stocking rate of above 1LU/Ha. The swards on these farms are most likely old permanent pasture and may not have been reseeded over the past 50 years or so. Whereas a farmer with a high proportion rushy type land would have to stock their farm at under 1LU/Ha.

Old permanent pastures can contain hugely biodiverse swards and ideally should not be reseeded. If farmers wish to introduce clovers and multi-species swards to their farms, they should target fields with low levels of sward biodiversity, with high levels of perennial ryegrass. This could enable such farmers to increase their stocking rate above 1LU/Ha

On hill farms around the country which are made of grassland area  that are of great habitat value and the key on these type pastures is not to overgraze but equally not to undergraze and to allow the diverse species of plants to grow. Suitable stocking rates on this type of land can vary greatly. Some farms may carry a stocking rate of up to 0.5LU/Ha whereas on farms where sheep are out-wintered, a stocking rate of 0.15LU/Ha (which is the minimum Stocking Rate for the Organic Farming Scheme) may be more appropriate.

Key Message

Organic farming can suit all systems regardless of soil type or location. Organics suits all land types, improved clover type swards can take higher stocking rates while stocking rates may need to be adjusted to match the natural growing capabilities of the sward

For more on organic farming check out the Teagasc Organics webpage