Farmers using Teagasc walks to upskill and network

THE Teagasc organic demonstration farm walks are in full swing, with seven still to come, covering a range of enterprises across the country.

Upcoming walks will include beef, sheep, poultry, pigs, tillage, field scale and market garden horticulture, direct selling, dairying, biodiversity and farm shops.

Most walks will feature more than one of these areas in the one visit, and all walks start at 2pm. I spoke to Teagasc organic advisor Patrick Barry about this year’s walks.

“The numbers attending are broadly similar to last year,” he says, “But you are finding that a lot more farmers in conversion or already organic are attending.”

This suggests that farmers already operating to the standard are using the walks to learn more and upskill, and possibly to network with potential future clients or customers.

“The highest attendances have been on the horticulture walks, but these would include customers and hobby gardeners, as well as actual full-time growers.”

Three main areas have been the focus of the livestock walks — animal breeding, grassland management and nutrient management. “The aim is to showcase maximum productivity,” says Patrick. “With marketing and achieving a premium also key areas of focus.”

A recent walk in Laois exemplifies current trends. Eamonn Holohan, Errill, Co Laois) is new to the Organic Farming Scheme, being full symbol status since May of this year. Holohan stocks 96 suckler cows on the 99 hectares farm, of which 40 hectares is rented. The herd of continental cross sucklers is split in spring and autumn calving sections. He carries two bulls, a Limousin and a Saler.

Animals have always been loose housed with 10 to 12 square metres per head. According to Pat Barry, “This is almost twice the space required under the organic regulations, but it allows him to use significantly less straw, an input which is becoming expensive on many organic farms.”

In 2008, grant-aided slatted tanks were put in place. The slurry from these is used as fertiliser for early grass and silage.

Changing over to organic meant having to find new routes to market for his animals. Previously, the majority of cattle were sold as weanlings. This was easier — he just went to the mart with them. “Last year, he found it difficult to sell his weanlings as organic. He reckons this was a marketing problem, as he has had a number of inquiries already this year. In the past few weeks, he has sold maiden heifers for replacements to an organic farmer in Tipperary,” says Pat Barry. Farmers who convert over to organic have to cultivate new routes to market, wherever that market be replacement heifers, finishers, or direct selling meat.

Sales in the organic system are more specific, with dedicated organic cattle marts and farm-to-farm sales the order of the day. Holohan is looking at finishing his own cattle, which throws up new challenges. Cash flow and land availability are two. An issue is having to wait one extra year for cash. When you sell on weanlings every year, you get paid every year, but if you decide to start finishing, you might miss a year of cash.

It goes without saying that banks are not necessarily making cash available to farmers, or indeed anyone.

One way to deal with these issues is to stagger finishing. Pat Barry says that finishing a portion of the stock at a time allows for weanling cash flow to be maintained, whilst still moving into finishing.

The next Teagasc organic farm walk is on Tuesday July 27 at 2pm, hosted by John McDonnell, near Slane in Co Meath. The focus is on beef, sheep and tillage. For a full list of Teagasc organic farm walks, see my blog.


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