Organic dairying is a relatively small but growing sector within the dairy industry in Ireland, writes Dan Clavin, Teagasc organic specialist.
Latest figures from DAFM show that there are 62 organic dairy operators with an average herd size of 79 cows (2019). Organic dairy farmers are located right around the country with a high proportion in Cork, Tipperary, and Limerick.
Organic dairy farming offers an excellent opportunity as a profitable enterprise option, but success is dependent on you having a good interest in organic methods and having a market price secured for your 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 companies (Glenisk, Arrabawn, Aurivo, The Little Milk Company and The Village Dairy) handling most of the organic milk. Demand at present exists for both 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 55-60c/litre for 5 months. Summer milk price has ranged from 30 to 44 c/litre.
Organic dairy farming compares favourably to conventional systems.
Typically, organic dairy farmers are stocked in the region of 1.4 LU/ha and therefore, require access to more land compared to the average conventional dairy farmer.
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/Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine (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 170kg N/ha. 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 L.U. /ha.
High-yielding Friesian and Holstein animals at the expense of quality beef calves for meat production versus cross-breeding and using lower=yielding robust cows that require less feeding are the most obvious considerations.
The capacity of the animal to adapt to local conditions, their resistance to diseases and your ability to grow quality clover and other legume-based forages for feed are important factors which should also be considered.
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.
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 6 months of conversion.
Note: from the conversion start date, all feed must be GMO-free.
Housing and bedding
More space is generally required over 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 (conventional is permitted), sawdust (untreated) 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 permission from your 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.
On conversion, permission may be sought to source replacement heifers from non-organic farms up to a maximum of 10% of the herd size or in special circumstances, up to 40% of the herd size eg. in the latter case, a major extension of stock on the farm, breed change or new livestock specialisation.
Therefore, prior to conversion, perspective organic dairy farmers are advised to source appropriate breeds of livestock that are required for breeding purposes on their organic holding.
AI and use of a bull
Organic farmers are permitted to buy a bull from a non-organic farm for breeding purposes.
Use of artificial insemination (AI) is also permitted. Sexed semen is permitted once the semen is not chemically separated.
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 effectively be managed.
Soil fertility inputs that are commonly imported onto organic farms include:
- Cattle slurry from another grassland-based farmer (either organic and conventional farmer; derogation farm source >170 kg N/ha is also permitted);
- Organic and or free-range chicken manure
- Dairy sludge from approved dairy processing plant and;
- Certain mineral sources of fertilisers eg. ground rock phosphate and basic slag etc.
Note: organic manures from factory farms including commercial pig and non-organic or non-free-range chicken farms are not permitted.
As all herbicides are prohibited in organic farming, weed control must be achieved by management practices and mechanical methods.
Maintenance of good levels of soil fertility and appropriate soil pH, regular topping, and rotation of silage and grazing ground can help achieve good control.
A dense, well managed sward will minimise infestation since seedling weeds are poor competitors to grass-clover awards.
As 100% of the feed must be from organic or in-conversion sources you need to ideally produce all your feed from the farm.
Organic grain and compound ration are fairly widely available. Prices for organic concentrate feed generally cost around double the price of conventional.
Contact details of where to buy organic feed may be found on the organic certification body (OCB) websites.