Of the 870 applicants to join the Organic Farming Scheme in 2015, 220 farmers applied to rejoin. One of these was Limerick man Thomas Finucane.
He is farming a 52-acre holding part-time, as he also works with an engineering company in the mid-west. I asked him why he joined the Organic Farming Scheme back in 2010.
“The decision to convert to organic farming followed a number of years where it was virtually impossible to break even financially.
"The absence of economies of scale coupled with high input costs of fertilizer and concentrates resulted in poor returns pre-2010.
"This situation was often compounded by very weak year-end slaughter prices at times where the cost of fuel and concentrates had increased drastically.
"In essence seeking to finish stock on a holding of this size had become completely unsustainable.
“Having visiting a number of established organic farms, the process of conversion was relatively straight forward.
"Fortunately capital outlay was minimal as existing winter housing was sufficient to satisfy bedding area requirements.”
When he began converting the farm, stocking rates were reduced initially to cater for the absence of artificial fertilizer.
The first two years saw very little change to grass growth rates as nutrient levels remained relatively high.
After two to three years the application of farm yard manure and slurry helped with maintaining general fodder production.
His farming system involves buying in yearling steers and finishing these over the subsequent 18 months.
“The current system finishes 18 to 20 steers per year. Replacement stocks are purchased around the end of March. For convenience these are usually sourced through GVM - Kilmallock Marts.
"Yearlings are chosen between 300kg and 340kg costing on average €920 in 2015. Stock levels range from 18 steers over winter to approximately 36 steers during late spring and summer.
"Livestock is rotated over 5 land parcels during the grazing season which typically runs from mid-March to early December if possible. This system is essential for parasite control also.”
Cereal availability is a concern.
“Absolute cereal cost is considerably lower versus the conventional system as in the majority of cases steers finish on grass at approximately 30 months. Carcass weights are generally 340kg to 365kg averaging €1750+ per steer during 2015.
Cereal availability has been relatively problematic across the organic beef sector in recent years.
There are very few organic cereal growers in the broader Limerick area.
During the past three years I managed to source rolled oats privately in Galway, Cork and Limerick.
Supply can be tight in late spring however during 2015 supply of various organic cereal mix/concentrates became available from processors, though it was expensive – from €400 to €570 per ton.”
“Cereal availability remains volatile. Unfortunately a significant portion of the concentrates consumed in Ireland are sourced through the UK.
"Inadequate incentives exist to encourage Irish tillage farmers to dedicate acreage to organic cereals. Such a move would be beneficial in helping to become self-sufficient and less vulnerable to currency exchange rate changes.”
Financially, conversion to organic has worked out reasonably well so far.
“From a financial point of view, conversion to an organic beef system has been very significant.
"The past five years have witnessed the transition from a non-financially viable conventional system to a financially viable, environmentally sustainable and less intensive organic system.
"Availability of international organic beef markets underpins this.”
While it’s good the organic sector is growing, this will pose its own challenges.
“New entrant numbers to organic beef farming in 2015 were unprecedented. Recent data from Slaney Foods and Good Herdsmen anticipate an extra 7,000 finished steers will come on-stream annually over the next number of years.
"This is around double the current annual organic beef slaughter rate. This may impact price.”
Growth is good, but price – well, that’s the bottom line.
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