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Clover Magazine

Clover magazine is published by the Organic Trust Ltd and contains a wealth of information on all aspects of organic production. Clover magazine is issued free to all Organic Trust licensees.
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Making the leap to Organic Dairy Production

News | 03 Apr 2017

As a former dairy farmer I have great admiration for organic dairy producers. Unlike beef production, which is relatively straightforward, the challenges for organic dairy production are many. This was my impression until I began to talk to those who have made the leap. Most of the challenges are as one farmer put it, “between the ears”. The habitual conventional approach needs to be questioned and alternate approaches found.

Conventional cow’s milk production, has always been subject to huge industry pressure. Ireland has placed itself in the middle of the world “commodity milk” market. Ireland’s dairy farmer’s incomes are at the mercy of market whims. They are being pressured to invest more, expand production and reduce costs. Farms are pushed to capacity and animals are bred to the point of questionable welfare and for what? To have their liquid milk sold cheaper than mineral water and the largest percentage powdered and sold to china as infant formula.

However there is hope; the home market demand for organic liquid milk cannot be met and the shortfall is imported from the UK. The number of Irish organic milk producers is only in the mid-thirties and despite the lack of a current “Organic Farming Scheme” some farmers are still converting due to demand. Organic milk is a premium product and commands a higher price. Processors are paying in the region of €0.60 per litre for winter milk contracts as opposed to €0.34 for conventional milk. Organic systems (under the European Organic Standards) reduce stress, which benefit the health and welfare of the animals.  As a result the day to day running of the organic dairy farm tends to be easier.

Conventional dairy relies heavily on synthetic Nitrogen as a crucial tool to force early spring grass so as to get cows out and producing milk off grass early in spring. Organic dairy farmers usually use nitrogen fixing clovers and other legumes in their pastures. This has one disadvantage as clovers only start growing when the soil temperature reaches 10°C, meaning grass growth is about a month later.  However the annual growth curve for both systems is almost the same. Organic grass growing biologically continues for approximately a month later in the autumn when the soluble synthetic fertilisers cease to have effect.

 There is also an exciting trend toward introducing mixed species herbal leys. This move away from a monoculture of perennial ryegrasses has multiple benefits: The plant diversity builds a healthier and more resilient sward as well as supporting a broader ecosystem. The soil is better utilised as the root types vary from matting rhizomes to powerful tap roots. These help build soil structure and break up compaction and also access a range of minerals / nutrients not reached by perennial ryegrass. The animals benefit, as the diversity in their diet fuels a healthy immune system and provides access to plants that are natural wormers (anthelmintics) like chicory and sainfoil. The addition of cool season grasses into the seed-mix can also help lengthen the grazing season naturally. For more on herbal leys click here .

Another main issue is the cost of organic concentrate feed. Dairy cows are typically fed from 400Kg to 2000kg each per year.  Organic dairy ration, presently costs €500 per tonne but can cost as much as €600. This is where the breeding of cows which produce well on lower meal intake becomes paramount.  It is also worth noting that an organic dairy cow’s diet must consist of at least 60% fresh or conserved forage material.
The importance of preventing mastitis in an organic system is also magnified as the organic withdrawal periods for animals treated are longer (a minimum of 14 days). Also only two courses of treatment for dairy mastitis are permitted within a twelve month period. If this is exceeded the animal should be either sold conventionally or undergo a further fifteen-month conversion period. Recent research from the Innovative Farmers Field Labs Program in the UK trialled the use of a test to check the strain of mastitis, to inform the farmer whether treatment is required or not. For the full report click here.

The Organic Standards for mastitis control are strict but animals that are persistently infected are inefficient. They are also possibly breeding future weaknesses into the herd. Some farmers are retiring cows with high cell counts out of the dairy herd and use them to rear three or four calves instead. This is a useful strategy as Organic Standards do not permit the use of milk replacer, dairy calves must be fed organic liquid cow’s milk. The feeding of high value milk to bull calves which have a poor market value is often not economically sound.
Bull calves in any dairy operation can be an economic weakness. Growing markets and promotion of organic rosé veal is the obvious solution. Click here . to read an encouraging article in the Telegraph on the subject. If bull calves had value it would be it feasible for farmers to move away from breeding heavy milk producing cows and aim for a more balanced animal. AAA breeding is an alternate approach to “Euro rating”, which considers the whole animal rather than genetic selection for single traits. For more on this click here  and the AAA website is

Animal housing infrastructure maybe the biggest hurdle for a converting farmer. If cubicles are used they must be 3m² and must be bedded with a dry litter material e.g. straw. This is labour intensive but it is to ensure the animals comfort as well as creating an adequate supply of farm yard manure. For this reason many organic dairy producers have moved away from cubicles in favour of a deep bedded loose housing. This produces a larger amount of FYM which is important for fertility in organic production.

Apart from these considerations all other changes are positive. Processors are offering fair pricing contracts with a high market percentage of the retail price. This could change in the future if the market gets flooded with an influx of new converting farmers but for the moment demand is high.
There are many forward thinking farmers with the Organic Trust that have protected against this issue by value adding, self-processing and marketing. They produce a diverse range of products from micro-dairy raw milk, single herd milk, cheeses, yogurt, ice-cream and even milk kefir (a probiotic fermented milk product).
There is potential for making milk special again. The reason supermarkets have driven down the price of milk to be cheaper than mineral water boggles the mind. Meanwhile plant based milk alternatives can command prices double or triple to that of whole cow’s milk. BBC radio 4 Food Program excellently researched and produced an episode called A Milk Appreciation  discussing these points.

The future looks bright for organic dairy. As conventional dairy fights to hold its ground with milk alternatives, the demand and market potential for organic dairy keeps growing.

Clive Bright

PR & Development Officer 087 6418104

Organic Trust CLG