Research To Examine Viability Of Organic Conversion

The aim is to provide detailed data on the performance and sustainability of Irish organic farms.

The lack of evidence and data on the sustainability of Irish organic farms didn’t put off the 3,000 farmers who joined the Organic Farming Scheme since January 2023.

Now, the knowledge gap will be filled by the Growing Resilient Organic Farming Systems (GROFarmS) project.

This is being undertaken by Teagasc together with UCD. It will develop best practice technologies to support profitable and sustainable organic beef and lamb finishing systems.

The GROFarmS project commenced in March. It will run for four years, at a cost of €1.3m and is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and Teagasc.

Land under organic farming in Ireland has more than tripled since 2022 through the Organic Farming Scheme, and there are ambitious targets to grow the sector further.

There are now about 5,000 organic farms in the country, covering more than 5% of the national land area.

Beef farmers, particularly suckler farmers, make up the majority of the new organic farmers. They will be well catered for in GROFarmS.

“Research on beef finishing systems will be conducted on a dedicated, organic-certified 100-acre beef finishing farm in Kildavin, beside Johnstown Castle in Wexford,” said Teagasc researcher and GROFarmS Coordinator, Dr Kevin Kilcline, during a recent edition of the Teagasc Beef Edge podcast.

Beef farmers, particularly suckler farmers, make up the majority of the new organic farmers. They will be well catered for in GROFarmS.

“This farm is currently being converted to organic farming standards. This includes a reseeding programme and conversion of farm sheds to meet organic standards. Complementary research trials on organic finishing diets will also be undertaken at the Grange research site, which will subsequently inform the design of winter diets in Kildavin”, said Kevin.

In addition, the Teagasc National Farm Survey will be extended to capture information on organic beef farms across the country, to identify what different production practices are being applied on farms, and costs of production, profitability and sustainability.

Kevin explained why research on the performance and sustainability of Irish organic farms has been underdeveloped up to now. “That’s mainly because up to now, the number of organic farms has been low, but obviously, that’s changed with the increasing interest, uptake and the targets to support further growth in organic farming”.

“Farmers will want figures on cost of production, if they’re converting over to organic farming. The cost of conversion to meet organic farming standards, such as the cost of adapting farm buildings, one has to provide 50% dry-bedded lying area and greater space requirements for livestock. This is all part of the information that will be calculated as part of the research project”.

The findings will assist farmers in making better-informed decisions on whether or not to convert to organics.

“Currently, there’s a pressing need for this information”, said Kevin. “Organic beef suckler farmers want information on the cost of production and the profitability of organic farming”.

Trials on the Kildavin farm will review production costs of spring-born, early and late-maturing suckler calves which will be finished at a variety of ages, 19 months, 24 months, and 28 months of age. 

“They will be finished on a range of different diets that are compatible with the organic system”, Kevin said. “The performance of these animals will be measured in terms of feeding, intake, growth rates and emissions and ultimately then, at a farm level we’ll translate that information from the trials to calculate the impact of these organic production systems on profitability. We’re also going to be assessing things such as soil health, biodiversity, and carbon turnover of the farm, which can effectively assess the environmental sustainability of the systems.”

The research will be mainly based on beef-finishing systems, given that most of those who have converted to organic farming have been suckler farmers. 

“There is an issue currently in the organic sector in terms of what is called leakage. A portion of the animals that are reared organically and sold as weanlings are finished conventionally, leaving the organic system, effectively”. Kevin said. “We need information to be able to support the adoption of beef finishing systems, in particular to address that leakage”.

Dissemination of the research findings to farmers will rely heavily on Teagasc’s specialist organics team as well as the regionally based organic farming advisors. “They’ll have a key role in guiding the research”, Kevin explained. They will communicate research findings to farmers and will demonstrate the best practices. “It’s important to have this expert input that’s based on the experience of interacting with real organic farmers on the ground, who already have that experience of converting and farming organically”.

As research findings emerge, Teagasc open days at the Kildavin farm and elsewhere, regional organic farm walks, and varied events across the country will be used to publicise the research results.

In-service training will also be needed to upskill general agricultural advisory staff so that they will be better able to support organic farmers. Regular updates on the project will be posted in the Rural Economy section of the Teagasc website.

A representative sample of organic beef farms will be added to the Teagasc National Farm Survey. 

“That will show the different production practices that are currently being applied on farms, what that means in terms of cost of production and profitability. We’ll also be able to explore what are the drivers, what’s driving the farmers to choose to move into organic farming”, Kevin said. “On the financials, we’ll be able to use the Survey as well to identify environmental and social sustainability”. 

A new dedicated organic farm recorder has recently been appointed to take responsibility for including a sample of organic farms annually in the National Farm Survey.

The expectation is that the Organic Farming Scheme will re-open for new applications in November 2024.

(Source – Irish Examiner – Farming – Stephen Cadogan – 09/07/2024)

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