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Fergal Byrne

Introduction

Fergal Byrne farms 58.768Ha (145acres) of utilisable land in Calverstown Little, Dunlavin, Co. Kildare. The farm is a mixed farming enterprise with cattle, lamb, oats, wool and turkeys all sold off the farm organically. For a number of years Fergal had an interest in organic farming. “In 2014 I felt I had to start looking at other options for the farm”. At the time he was renting a lot of land on conacre and growing cereals on it. “Every time I went into the field I was spending money on the likes of fertiliser and sprays”. Fergal also wanted to generate a full-time income from the farm and realised that he was going to have to increase in scale under conventional systems to enable this to happen.

In late 2014 Fergal completed a 25 hour course on Organic farming principles. Having completed the course, Fergal decided that farming organically could offer him the opportunity to earn a full time living from the farm without having to increase in scale. In late 2014 Fergal completed his conversion plan and commenced his organic conversion in early 2105. Fergal really enjoys the variety of jobs on the farm that the mixed organic farming system offers him and also the variety of enterprises protects him somewhat from price fluctuations as his is not too dependent on any one income source.

Fergal is the chairperson of the organics branch of the Irish Cattle and Sheep-farmers Association (ICSA); member of the newly founded National organic strategy forum; board member of the Irish Organics Association and is also involved in an EIP project entitled “Protecting Farmland Pollinators”.

Farm Details and Land Use

The utilisable area on this farm is 58.76Ha, of which 35.49Ha is owned and the remaining 23.27Ha is rented on a conacre basis. There is also a further 5.6Ha of commercial forestry, bringing the total area farmed to 64.36Ha.

Livestock Enterprises

Fergal operates a mixed grazing system of sucklers and sheep. These are primarily kept on the home farm with the outside blocks being used for mostly for hay and silage. The suckler herd has remained relatively static in numbers over the past 10 years, however, prior to converting to organics, Fergal used to sell all calves at weanling stage. Over a period of 3 years, after converting, he increased the stock until he was selling all cattle as finished animals. Fergal has also increased the sheep flock to 235 ewes this year.

Red Clover Silage

In early May 2021, Fergal sowed 4.40 Ha with red clover silage and combi-crop. The land was ploughed and tilled with 10ton of composted farmyard manure being spread before ploughing. 50kgs (8 stone) of oat seed were sown along with 40kgs of combi-crop seed. Fergal then broadcast a red clover silage mix that he sourced from Fruithill Farm. The field was then ring rolled before finally receiving a final flat roll. The field received two sprays of compost tea during the growing phase.

Regulation for Seed Usage

  • Organic seed database with details of suppliers and available organic seed www.organicxseeds.com
  • Must seek permission to use un-treated non-organic seed from your Organic Certification Body (OCB).
  • A derogation must be obtained from the OCB for use of any untreated non-organic seed prior to sowing.
  • Conventional treated seed is not permitted to be used.

Beef Enterprise

Fergal keeps approximately 15 suckler cows and rears all the progeny through to fattening at 22 – 27 months. The cows are predominantly Charlaois and a Charlaois bull runs with the cows. The majority if the cows calve in March and April. Cattle receive 3-4kgs of ration for the last 3 weeks before slaughter and that is the only ration they receive in their lifetime.

Red clover silage is used to finish cattle over the second winter. All the cattle slaughtered in 2022 were sent to Slaney meats. The majority were sold at a flat price of €5.60/kg. As can be seen from table 3, they were slaughtered at an average of 25 – 26months at an average carcass weight of 286kgs.

Case Study – Animal 321

Photo taken April 26th 2022 (3 weeks pre-slaughter)

Beef financials

In the table below we assume Fergal purchases his own weanlings at 300kgs for €900 and finishes them at 26 months. As Fergal does much of his own machinery work and grows his own straw, the silage costs and straw costs are over-estimated to reflect the situation of a grass only farmer who hires a contractor to complete all silage work.

Sheep Enterprise

Fergal has always kept sheep on the farm and he feels they fit in well with the beef and tillage enterprises. The sheep can also target specific weeds making them an ideal complement to the cattle enterprise but the primary reason for maintaining the sheep enterprise is to provide a more even cashflow over the calendar year.

The current flock consists of 230 ewes including 25 ewe lambs. The ewes are mostly crossbred with a combination of Leicester x Texel x Suffolk being the most common cross with the flock. There are also a number of Cheviot and Kerry hill ewes within the flock.

Texel, Blue Texel, and Hampshire Down rams are currently running with the man flock. Fergal runs 2 Galway rams with the ewe lambs as he feels they very easy lambing and they are also very good for their wool quality for which Fergal has a unique market (covered in a later section).

Flock Management

  • Rams are introduced to the flock in early October for breeding.
  • Ewes are scanned at approximately 80 days gestation.
  • Lambing begins in early March.
  • Shearing takes place in June
  • Faecal egg counts are carried out on ewes twice annually and lambs, in September and after Christmas. Worm dose only given if egg count is high, and after receiving veterinary approval.
  • Vaccinations are given for Clostridial Diseases in accordance with the recommendations
  • Lambs receive mineral supplementation of Cobalt and Vitamin 12 and the ewes are supplemented twice with Cobalt before and during mating.

Winter Feed Management

Sheep are typically housed in early January. Fergal keeps a close eye on the ewes for the first 2 weeks after housing and he will put any ewes that aren’t thriving back out to grass. This usually results in approximately 20 ewes being put back out to grass and they are usually the Cheviot, Kerry Hill and some older ewes. Fergal believes this is key to him maintaining a very low ewe mortality rate.

Ewes are fed on a mixed diet of hay and red clover/oat silage mix. Fergal will purchase 1ton of organic ration to feed to ewes pre-lambing and this is the total meal purchased for the ewes. They will all receive mineral supplementation during the indoor period via mineral licks. Ewes are let out to grass as they lamb. In spring 2022, they also grazed the red clover silage ground.

Lamb Sales/financials

Lambs are sold from mid- June to March. Lambs typically weigh 20kgs deadweight with an average price of €145 received for lambs in 2021. Fergal has 2 main markets for his lamb, Mulhalls of Coolanowle Organic Meats and ICM (Irish Country Meats) based in Camolin, Co. Wexford. Fergal would rather have a 20kgs lamb and get paid for the full weight rather than have a 23 – 24kgs lamb and not get paid for the last 1- 2kgs.

Fergal’s costs for the lamb enterprise work out at €51 per lamb sold. Variable costs of forage (hay & silage), veterinary, and straw costs amount to €8 and fixed costs of machinery running, insurance, professional fees, car, phone, electricity and land lease amount to €43/lamb sold.

When these costs are put against the price received of €145 it makes it one of the more profitable enterprises on Fergal’s farm. The short housing period, low input finishing and achieving a premium for his organic lamb are key to the profitability of Fergal’s system.

Wool Sales

Fergal Supplies Yarns and Vibes in Cork with organic wool who sell the wool as yarn. The process of taking the organic wool from Fergal’s farm to the time it ends up on the shelf of Yarns and Vibes in Cork goes through a number of distinctive steps/processes across the country.

  1. The wool is produced on Fergal’s farm in Co. Kildare
  2. The wool undergoes a gentle and organic wash
  3. The is then transported to Chris in Donegal yarns where the wool is firstly put through a blending chamber to “breathe life into the fleece” before being spun into yarn
  4. The yarn then makes its way to hand-dyer, Jennifer in Co. Clare who uses natural organic blends to achieve her vibrant colours
  5. The final stop for the yarn is on the shelves of Joan’s shop in Co. Cork

The full story can be watched on Youtube by searching “Yarn Vibes Organic” or by clicking here

Organic Cereals

There is a strong demand for organic cereals for both livestock and human consumption. The demand for organic cereals is expected to continue to increase for the foreseeable future.

Currently on the farm, there is 10.07 hectares of land devoted to cereals. This is made up of all spring oats all of which are grown for Flahavans and the organic porridge market.

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is the key to successful organic crop production. The rotation provides the principal mechanism to provide crop nutrients and is a major way to control pests/diseases along with a variety of other benefits.

Fergal’s plan will be implementing a rotation of a 2 year fertility-building phase followed with 3 years cereals and then back to red clover/combination-crop.

*Source Teagasc Crops Costs and Returns 2022
** Source Fergal Byrnes own figures

Expected Yields

The expected yield for the spring oats would be between 1.8 – 2.0 tonnes per acre. In 2021 Fergal’s spring oats yielded 1.92 tonnes per acre.

Compost Tea

Compost teas are liquid versions of the solid compost material. They contain soluble plant nutrients and a complex community of beneficial microorganisms. While there are an infinite number of ways to prepare compost teas, basically all teas begin by mixing compost in water in order to extract plant nutrients and microorganisms. Liquid teas can be applied as soil drenches, foliar sprays or incorporated into irrigation systems. Source: Rodale Institute

Having attended a talk by Joel Williams, Fergal was keen to investigate more about the concept of compost teas and he has been experimenting with using various ingredients that he has on his farm and applying the compost tea as a foliar spray application. He admits that he is still learning the process and sometimes it works better than others. Farmyard manures (from cattle, sheep and turkeys), plant materials, clover silage, woodchip and wool are amongst some of the ingredients that Fergal has experimented with in his compost tea.

Turkeys

Fergal rears approximately 250 turkeys every year. The turkeys are reared in the polytunnel (prior to sheep being housed). They are purchased as chicks in late August/early September and sold at Christmas. Fergal sells direct to many customers but also sells a large percentage of them to a retailer who sell s hem at the farmers market in Carrick on Shannon.

The turkeys are fattened on an organic turkey ration and he has experimented with using the sheep’s wool as a bedding material. When the turkeys are 5 – 6 weeks of age he introduces the wool and finds it serves two purposes n that it is a bedding material for the turkeys but it also breaks the wool down to allow him compost it, adding to the circular nature of Fergal’s farming system.

Soil Nutrients and Manure Management

  • Management of organic farms should ensure regular inputs of manures and a level of microbial and earthworm activity sufficient to breakdown organic matter and ensure continuous and efficient nutrient cycling.
  • Keeping soils at a pH that facilitates organic matter breakdown and nutrient recycling is essential for successful organic farming.
  • Organic manure nutrient content can vary widely depending on the source of nutrients and it is advisable to have the nutrient content of manures checked through laboratory analysis.

Sources of Nutrients used on Farm

  • Nitrogen from atmospheric fixation by clover and other legumes
  • Farmyard manure from sheep when housed for lambing
  • Imported farmyard manure and cattle slurry
  • Imported dairy sludge

Animal Welfare in Organic Farming

Livestock Health

  • A healthy herd in organic farming is achieved by a combination of good management, sound nutrition and good animal husbandry skills.
  • When a farm undergoes conversion to organic status an Animal Health Plan is required to be drawn up by the veterinary practitioner, who specifies the current animal health issues on the farm and how the farmer will tackle these problems into the future, while conforming to the requirements of organic certification standards.
  • Detection of problems needs to be early, and timely veterinary advice is invaluable – when an animal is ill the organic farmer reacts in the same manner as their conventional neighbour and veterinary assistance is required immediately.

Conventional Veterinary Treatments Permitted

  • Animals for meat consumption: one course antibiotics within 12 months.
  • Animals for breeding: two courses antibiotics within 12 months.
  • Dairy Mastitis: 2 courses antibiotics within 12 months, otherwise the cow is removed from the milking herd.
  • If limits exceeded, organic status is taken away from animal.

Withdrawal Periods for use of Veterinary Products

All withdrawal periods shall be doubled.
Unless the medicinal product used indicates a withdrawal period, the specified withdrawal period shall not be less than:
14 days for eggs
14 days for milk
56 days for meat from poultry and mammals

Organic Animal Housing Standards

  • Adjustments to meet organic standards may be necessary – depends on farm situation.
  • Housing is not compulsory.
  • At least 50% of floor area must be bedded.
  • Straw, rushes or untreated wood shavings are acceptable bedding materials and these need not be organic.
  • All animal housing is subject to inspection and approval by the Organic Certification Body.
  • See Table 8 for organic space requirements.
  • Cubicles are permitted if they are of optimum size for the animals on the holding. At least 3m2 per individual animal must be allowed for dairy cows. 
  • Cubicles must be clean and dry and bedded at all times

Organic Certification in Ireland

A major factor that distinguishes organic farming from other approaches to sustainable farming is the existence of internationally acknowledged standards and certification procedures. The standards for organic production within the European Union are defined and enshrined in law by Council Regulation EC 834/2007 as amended.

In Ireland the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the competent authority (i.e. - the Department’s Organic Unit is based at Johnstown Castle Estate Wexford) for regulating the organic sector and ensuring that the obligations and requirements of Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 as amended and adhered to.

The Organic Unit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have designated Official Certification Bodies whose role is to certify organic producers, farmers and processors through and inspection process of each individual’s unit or farm. Further information can be sourced from these organic certification bodies:

IOA (Irish Organic Association) 
Unit 13, Inish Carraig, Golden Island, Athlone, Co. Westmeath. N37 N1W4. 
Tel: 090 6433680 | Email: info@irishoa.ie | Web: www.irishorganicassociation.ie

 

Organic Trust 
Unit M4, Naas town centre, Dublin Road, Naas, Co.Kildare. W91F7X3 
Tel: 045 882377 | Email: info@organictrust.ie | Web: www.organictrust.ie

 

 

Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme Organic Capital Investment Scheme (OCIS)

A standard rate of aid of 40% on investments up to a ceiling of €80,000 (i.e. can generate a grant of €32,000 from an investment of €80,000). For qualifying young organic farmers who meet the specific eligibility criteria, the standard rate of aid is 60% on investments up to a ceiling of €80,000.

How to Apply 
Online applications only through www.agfood.ie facility.

Full details and T&C:
http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/farmingsectors/organicfarming/organicsscheme/organiccapitalinvestmentschemeocis/

Queries:
DAFM Organic Unit, Johnstown Castle: organic@agriculture.gov.ie 

Organic Processing Scheme

Grant aid of up to 40% on €1.75 million (i.e. can generate a grant of €700,000 for an investment of €1.75 million) in facilities for the processing, preparation, grading, packing and storage of organic products with minimum level of investment in excess of €3,000.

More Details:
http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/press/pressreleases/2015/august/title,84203,en.html 

Queries:
DAFM Organic Unit, Johnstown Castle: organic@agriculture.gov.ie 

Organic Farming Scheme (OFS)

The DAFM Organic Farming scheme opened on February 9th 2022 for new applications and closed on April 22nd 2022.

 

Payment Rates for Livestock Holdings

Further Information