Detailed research into the practicalities of organic dairying and the market potential for milk paved the way for John and Mathew Trimble’s 22-year journey into the field.
After a two-year conversion, they achieved full organic status in 2000 for their now 170-cow dairy farm in Castlecaulfield, Co. Tyrone.
The father and son team rear all their own replacement heifers and finish most of the beef calves. The herd is a mixture of pedigree British Friesian, British Friesian-cross-Holstein, and a small number of Brown Swiss cows.
John Trimble stressed:
“The key factors for success in an organic dairy system are a healthy soil, a healthy herd, and a significant premium for the organic milk.”
“Organic farming poses many challenges. However, there is no doubt that there are some key management practices that most other dairy farms could replicate and improve profitability for them as well.”
Tyrone organic dairy farmer
Data shows that the current annual rolling herd average milk yield is 7,200 litres at 4.3% butterfat and 3.30% protein.
The Trimble’s monitor business performance using CAFRE benchmarking and individual cow performance using Dale Farm’s milk recording service.
The Trimble’s are members of a group called Emerald Organics, which was formed in 2001 to market organic milk.
Rules and regulations
Farmers must meet specific rules and regulations to be certified organic. These relate to the origin of the feed, the type of fertiliser they can use and management relevant to animal health.
Dairy cows must have access to grazing over the summer months, 60% of the total annual diet must be in the form of forage.
When housed, slatted areas must be no more than 50% of the total floor area.
According to Gavin Duffy, CAFRE Dairy Development Adviser, maintaining soil fertility is a “key” element for any dairy system to maximise crop growth potential.
Research has shown that where the soil pH is below optimum (pH 6.0 – 6.5), grass is not utilising a considerable proportion of the applied chemical fertiliser.
All soils on the Trimble’s farm are sampled regularly, and based on the results, nutrients are targeted accordingly.
Maintaining optimum pH is not normally an issue.
Slurry and farmyard manure are sufficient to maintain target phosphorous levels, and where potash is needed, sulphate of potash is recommended for organic farms.
In recent years, the Trimble’s have experimented with various slurry additives, which are shown to have properties that accelerate the breakdown of the slurry and make the nutrients more readily available for the grass.
Matthew, who holds a Level 3 in Agriculture from CAFRE, Greenmount Campus, and has now farms full-time, said:
“The use of chemical nitrogen fertiliser is not permitted. Red and white clover, which have nitrogen-fixing properties, have been grown on our farm to replace bought-in fertiliser.”
“We have grown red clover alongside hybrid ryegrass varieties in mixes for silage. Red clover requires careful management. However, it has worked well on our farm, producing good quality forage, and reducing the need for bought-in protein.”
Furthermore, white clover is an important addition to all seed mixes that the farmers use. Although spring growth might be delayed, the annual yields of a well-managed grass/clover sward compare favourably with most swards receiving nitrogen fertiliser.
He explained that it is recommended in the organic situation that 50-70% of the grass seed in the mix is grown organically.
Gavin, their advisor, continued: “Whilst good grass and forage management on the farm can significantly reduce the reliance on bought-in concentrates, the cost of bought-in certified organic feed is a major challenge in John and Mathew’s system, being 50-75% more expensive than a similar non-organic ration.”
Gavin concluded: “The Trimble’s approach to animal health is very similar to any conventional dairy farm. Every effort is made to maintain a healthy herd and reduce the reliance on veterinary intervention.”
“Sick animals can be treated if needed, but withdrawal periods are doubled for permitted veterinary products. “
Disease prevention is an important part of the Trimble’s health plan. John uses homeopathy and herbal products to manage common health issues when required.
Good use is made of Dale Farm milk recording data in their selective dry cow therapy programme. The farmers say this is “key” in reducing the need for antibiotic use on the farm.
They graze young stock on ‘clean’ pasture or silage aftermaths when available to reduce the worm burden.
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