Oliver Moore: Bespoke pasture, the organic way

Last week we outlined some of the ways organic dairy is somewhat buffered against the current milk crisis.

Organic dairy farmers I’ve spoken to pointed out that by not competing on powdered milk, a huge worry regarding global price fluctuations is bypassed.

Powdered milk is a durable. It lasts for many months and is thus transportable globally. Irish dairy is in competition with countries with already long established trade routes.

With organic dairy, the currently available product mix is milk, yoghurt and cheese. For New Zealand or other exporters to try to compete for the Irish and UK organic milk and yoghurt market is, and will be, largely impractical.

While cheese too is a durable, organic producers have, wisely, aimed high. All cheeses produced by Irish organic dairy farmers are speciality cheeses, which retail at €20 per kilo or more. Thus, there is no real issue with commodity cheese competition. So, while there is always some price matching between conventional and organic, organic dairy is robust on a number of fronts.

What are core issues or concerns for farmers thinking about moving into organic milk?

Broadly speaking, a core difference between organic and conventional in dairy is that organic farmers have fewer inputs to work with. So while many animal health and other considerations are similar, organic dairy farmers have to really make preventative plans.

Early interventions and low stress practices (in housing and handling) are vital, because if an organic animal gets stressed, the options are more restricted.

Positively, from a producer’s perspective, supports are stronger now: there are more peers, approved inputs, and more exemptions.

Without mineral fertilisers, organic farmers use manure, compost, lime and micronutrients , etc. Increasingly, the pasture is bespoke: successful organic dairy farmers have re-seeded individual fields with plants, each of which serves specific functions.

White clover, for example, is used for both nitrogen fixing and for increasing the protein content in the milk.

But organic dairy farmers are also seeking out old grasses and herbs for optimising animal health and soil sustainability.

There is not much Irish research comparing organic and conventional dairy productivity. But a 2009 study by Humpherys assessed various metrics. These included herbage production, nutritive value of herbage, length of the grazing season, and milk production per cow and per hectare.

This study found no difference in grass digestibility, but found higher protein levels in conventional herbage. There were no differences in annual production of milk per cow, liveweight or body condition score between the two systems.

There were no differences in the grazing season length, which averaged 254 days. Although there was no difference in performance per cow, the higher herbage production indicates that a higher stocking rate and milk output per hectare was possible from conventional system.

Nevertheless, the organic system, using white clover, supported a quite high annual stocking density of 2.15/ha and a milk output of 14 t/ha.

That was 2009, in a study based on 2003-2006 performance.

Since then, organic dairy productivity has certainly increased.

And the future?

Organic micro-dairies have proven popular in the UK and elsewhere.

And direct selling of milk to the consumer is likely to grow in the years ahead.


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