Organic Sheep Farming
What to convert before making the leap into organic sheep farming was the focus of Elaine Leavy’s and Joe Kelleher’s presentation at Teagasc’s recent 2022 National Sheep Open Day.
The organic farming specialist, farm management and rural development specialists told attendees that there are a number of factors you need to take into account when considering the transition to an organic sheep farming system.
- Breeds and breeding;
- Flock health;
According to Teagasc, sheep can be outwintered; however, if housed, provide a bedded solid floor area.
Current requirements indicate that 50% of the total area can be slatted. The total space required per ewe is 1.5m2 /head (minimum) with an additional 0.35m2 /lamb.
The state advises in favour of utilising “plenty” of straw (conventional) to keep the lying area for the ewe dry at all times.
Breeds and breeding
According to these Teagasc specialists, a crossbred ewe is “ideal”, and a cross of any two existing breeds can produce “good” quality ewes.
Research has shown that the Texel breed has “substantially” better resistance to parasites than the Suffolk.
The specialists said:
“This gives the Texel a distinct advantage in an organic system, and the breed also produces a lean carcass.”
“The Belclare breed carries a proportion of Texel genes and, therefore, has advantages over the Suffolk in parasite resistance.
If aiming to lamb ewes early, they believe it is advantageous to have Suffolk-cross ewes. Organic sheep farmers tend to choose breeds with a high tolerance to worms.
“A crossbred ewe can be crossed with either Texel, Suffolk or Charollais to increase growth rate.”
They told farmers that breeding your own replacements in an organic system is of “great” benefit:
- It reduces the chances of introducing disease into the flock;
- Helps build up resistance to pathogens on the farm.
They confirmed that farmers could acquire rams from a non-organic farm for breeding purposes.
If suitable organic female breeding stock are unavailable, with prior permission from the OC, you are permitted to buy in non-organic female breeding stock up to 20% of your adult flock.
Moreover, grass is the main component of the diet in an organic sheep system. As 100% of the feed must be from organic or in-conversion sources, you need to produce your entire forage requirement on your farm.
However, the specialists told attendees that you can source organic grain and compound ration when required.
A rotational grazing system is preferred to set stocking, as it is easier to control grass quality; a rotation with three to four paddocks or fields.
Furthermore, they highlighted that disease prevention is “key” to good flock health.
At the application stage of converting to an organic system, you will draw up an animal health plan in consultation with your veterinary surgeon.
The animal health plan addresses issues such as:
- What diseases are currently on the farm;
- How you can control or prevent;
- What modifications you must make at farm-level to reduce the risk of disease.
Closed flock and no routine dosing
The specialists explained:
“Operating a closed flock is a big help in keeping sheep healthy. Measures such as double fencing boundaries and good general hygiene will reduce the risk of infection from various sources.”
“A clean grazing policy minimises the risk of internal parasites, as routine dosing is not permitted in the organic system.”
“The clean grazing plan provides clean or lightly infected pastures for grazing by the ewes and lambs during the first part of the grazing season. These are then changed to another pasture at weaning time.”
After weaning, lambs should continue to graze good quality pastures such as silage aftermaths.
This will provide clean grazing and will greatly reduce a parasite burden.