In this week’s Suckler Farmer Focus, That’s Farming speaks to Henry O’Donnell, a certified organic beef and sheep farmer from Inishowen, Co. Donegal and also a Farming for Nature ambassador since 2021. He discusses the farm’s transition to organic farming, the evolving of the enterprise over the last few years and what he still would like to accomplish with the land.
The family farm, situated in the foothills of the SlieveSnaght mountains, spans approximately 92 ha of which half is rented on a long-term basis. All the land is farmed as one unit.
Part of the O’Donnell’s farm is commonage.
“The commonage is above our privately-owned enclosed land. It encompasses a huge area and it is a dozen commonages one after the other with no physical boundaries between any of them,” Henry tells That’s Farming.
The farm can be traced back to 5 or 6 generations and Henry inherited it after his father passed away in 2015.
“I am a part-time farmer and have off-farm employment as the project manager of the Inishowen Upland Farmers EIP and do a small amount of consultancy for local farmers.
“My day job keeps me very busy. I have not had time to do as much development on the farm as I would have liked to have.”
Lowland consists of quality mineral soils
The farm’s lowland is slightly elevated, about 90m above sea level, and consists of a relatively small area of good quality mineral soils around the house and farmyard.
The property then slopes upward into poorer soils, and then peats and blanket bogs with lots of natural grasslands in the more elevated parts of the property.
“In my father’s time, we grew oats and seed potatoes on the good land and also had continental cattle and sheep. However, we stopped the oats and potatoes a long time ago as it was too small to be viable.”
“Since then we have tried to match our livestock type as closely as possible to the land type. This is common sense and in keeping with high nature value farming.”
Henry completed his agricultural degree in 1991 and obtained his herd number when he inherited the farm.
Conversion to organic farming
Henry says the decision to convert to organic farming when he took over made sense as they were already farming in this direction with many of the processes already in place. This included using very little fertiliser on the land.
“I have always been heavily involved in the farm. I was managing it a long time before I inherited the farm. Other than the desire to farm organically, it also suited our farming system.”
“We realised that all that needed to be done, was to tweak what we were already doing.”
“Moreover, we recognised that there were additional financial supports associated with organics which added to the attractiveness of the shift.”
Additionally, the O’Donnell’s farm is quite a sizeable piece of land, which made the move to organic agriculture an attractive option.
And due to a 2007 investment in new sheds, the farm already had good animal accommodation that suited organics.
Henry says the key to organic farming is proper management, for instance, developing animal management health plans.
“Although it was not a huge change for us, it involved putting structures in place for what we were already doing,” added Henry, who is an Irish Organic Association membe.
The farm’s suckler operation, which is the largest income driver, houses close to 30 cows. The expectation is for about 28 calves this year.
Although the focus traditionally was on continentals, Henry has introduced Galloway cattle which now make up just over half of the herd.
“Galloways are much hardier and happier on the upland areas of the farm. Also, they need less supplementary feeding and they can be kept out longer and, in some cases, all the time.”
He says he has not taken the plunge yet, but his long-term goal is to only have Galloways “with a bit of cross-breeding, maybe”.
So far, the Galloways have been bred with a pure Galloway bull. As for the continentals, Henry has been using a Salers bull, which he says leads to easy calving. “This fits well into my system as they calve naturally.”
Furthermore, Henry is contemplating cross-breeding a Galloway with a Whitebred Shorthorn bull, which will give him a blue-grey animal.
“Currently, these are very sought after as suckler cows by low-land farmers in Scotland.”
He only uses stock bulls and has not used AI in the last few years as he believes it is too time-consuming.
The Galloways usually calve around May because it all happens outside without any assistance. “They don’t like being handled or disturbed when calving.”
As for the cattle’s traits, Henry says the continentals with the Saler bulls give a good quality calf. For Galloways, he wants to retain the animal’s toughness.
“The reality is that the black Galloway can produce a good carcass. Obviously, not the size of a continental, but not that far behind them.”
Galloway beef renowned for quality marbling
“Also, Galloway beef has a reputation as a very high eminence marbled meat with excellent taste characteristics. I believe it has a huge potential to be marketed in the organic system.”
He adds that continentals need to be grazed on better quality land – of which they don’t have much – to get a reasonable performance out of the calf. This is the reason why they have reduced the continental herd.
“But the Galloways are quite happy on lower-quality land. They like the open space and are very much non-selective grazers.”
“They remove a lot of grazing that continentals or sheep would not eat. Also, this improves the sward composition for the sheep coming after them.”
As for cow weights, his mature Galloways, on average,weigh about 500kg. Moreover, the continental crosses come in at roughly 700kg, with some of his females weighing even more.
Regarding progeny, Henry says some will be sold as weanlings, although in the last couple of years he has finished and sold some into the organic system.
“However, I lean towards keeping the cows and selling the progeny for someone else to finish. Again, this is because we do not have the quality land for finishing any substantial number of cattle.”
“And to finish in an indoor system is too expensive when supplemented with organic feed.”
The continentals that Henry sold last spring went for around €2.50/kg live, and, in some cases more, for better class animals.
Organic cattle fetched €4.50/kg
The animals that went the organic route returned €4.50/kg. “The reality was whether I was selling a continental or Galloway, I was still getting the same price.”
All continentals are housed, and at times, the Galloways as well, especially in bad weather conditions.
Continental replacement heifers calve at about 2.5 years and Galloways will be pushing towards 3 years before their first calving.
In an organic system, one is allowed to slaughter at a premium price up to 36 months. However, Henry says he ideally likes having it done earlier, at about 30 months.
“The minimum carcass accepted is 250kg but they can go over 300kg.”
Scottish Blackface sheep crossed with Blue Leicester
On the sheep farming front, Henry farms with Scottish Blackface sheep,, which he crosses with a Blue Leicester ram.
The lambs are sold as stores and Henry says there is “quite a demand” for them from lowland farmers.
The hill sheep also fit in well with the circular system he is establishing on the farm, as well as with his objective to cut inputs to a minimum.
The sheep flock of around 70 ewes complement the cattle because of the heavy peat-type soil on the farm. “The sheep are excellent for tidying up after the cattle when conditions get too wet.”
Lambing happens from April and generally occurs outside.
“Where we are located with our altitude and our operations being so far north-west, the grazing only really starts taking off in April.
“If I lamb earlier, I will have to supplement with huge amounts of compound feeds, which does not make sense.”
Henry says they are not particularly worried about how compact the lambing is, as they are tough mountain animals that don’t need much supervision when lambing.
“If you assist every animal to lamb you are going to end up with a flock that needs support, which goes against what I am trying to establish.”
The lambing rate normally ends up at around 1.25 lambs per ewe. Lambing lasts more-or-less a month in most cases.
Henry usually introduces his ram around the 10th of November.
Selling progeny as stores
The progeny are sold as stores because of the shortage of quality grazing to finish them. They are all sold at the same time to lessen the workload.
The aim is to produce a quality lamb, and according to Henry, the Blue Leicester is his choice of ram to produce replacements for lowland farmers.
“We would run a Scottish Blackface ram with a proportion of the ewes every year to maintain our closed flock.”
“Generally, the animals are born and reared on the land. They develop an immunity to any issues that are endemic to our farm.”
The majority of lambs are sold at an average live weight of about 35kgs.
According to Henry, it is disappointing that there currently is no organic market locally for the lambs. However, he hopes the market will develop as more farmers get into farming organically.
“Our closest organic mart is in Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim. There is no point in taking the sheep there as it is close to 200km from us and we anyway don’t receive a premium for organic lamb at the moment. Basically, a proportion just leak back into the conventional market.”
In the long run, Henry would like to sell locally to butchers, etc. as interest in organic lamb grows.
“Selling directly is something that I aspire to over the long term, especially with my Galloway beef. But currently, I just don’t have the time and resources to do it.”
“I think there is an opportunity if something could be set-up on a slightly more commercial basis with some kind of branding.”
Concerning the farm’s grassland management, Henry says he has dabbled with using multi-species swards to produce quality silage and grazing on the lowland. The inputs used are limited to farmyard manure and slurry.
“We find that the herbal lays work extremely well. We also tried the silage production of red clover for use as winter fodder and in the future would like to build on this.
“Still, I wish I had done more reseeding of diverse swords, red clover, and planted trees and hedges. Again, I am just too busy to get to it.”
The cattle that were finished off last year did receive some organic concentrate with the grass.
Henry says there is often the assumption amongst farmers that one cannot grow any grass without artificial fertiliser.
However, he says the reality is that if you manage your soils and the pH properly, which you are allowed to do with lime in an organic system, it can be done without fertiliser.
“Also, if you manage your farmyard manure and slurry properly, you can grow a huge amount of grass. And by incorporating clover and diverse swards, you can boost it even further.”
Additionally, Henry believes many farmers also try to control too much when it comes to their grassland management.
“For instance, some of the weeds on the land are actually serving a purpose. My cattle do not receive any supplements regarding minerals. There is enough diversity in their grazing to serve this purpose.”
Future for organic cattle farming
Looking forward, Henry believes some recent changes are encouraging for the future of organic cattle farming. This includes, for instance, the minimum stocking rate to qualify for the full organic payment which has been lowered from 0.5LU/ha to 0.15LU/ha.
“Up to now, the minimum stocking rate restricted many farmers from going into organics. Although they had high nature value land, they just did not have the carrying capacity for the amount of stock required to receive a full payment.”
“I know several farmers here in Inishowen that are about 90% therein being organic, but they could not get access because of barriers like the minimum stocking rate.”
Also, Henry hopes that the organic scheme will develop further and that the future could see the establishment of organic tillage farmers closer to him.
“I would love the idea of being able to work with them, especially regarding crops like oats that I could buy directly from them. More needs to be put in place to encourage tillage farmers to go organic.”
“There are already some excellent organic tillage farmers that are very productive. More conventional farmers need to see that and learn from them.”
“Added to that, they need to see that there are people like myself that are prepared to pay a premium for their organic products to feed their animals.”
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