John and Eithne Hurley and family Alan, John and Sinéad farm in Castle Hill House, Ballintubber, Co Roscommon.

Teagasc recently held an organic farm walk on the holding which attracted in the region of 100 farmers.

The 39.6ha farm has witnessed substantial change over its 30-year lifetime. John says the farm started in 1991 from a greenfield site and developed over the next decade to a suckler herd of 58 cows and 125 ewes.

John said the family quickly realised the importance of breeding good-quality stock in terms of achieving high levels of animal performance and maximising output value along with driving production from a grass-based system. Notable developments of the farming system include the introduction of pedigree Limousin and Belgian Blue cows.

Maternally bred ewes are mated to terminally bred Charollais rams to produce top-quality U and E grading lambs.

The farm entered conversion to organics in 2015 with full organic status achieved in 2017. Explaining the reasoning, John said: “We noticed the increase in costs and decided intensive farming wasn’t as profitable anymore so we made the decision to join organics and practice a less intensive type of agriculture. We reduced cow number to 25 and sheep to 100. It was an easy transition for us as we also realised the importance of organic produce.”

Focus on genetics

Alan Hurley said that while there are many differences between organic and conventional farming, the foundation of the system has not changed, with genetics and grassland management still paramount.

The weanlings produced on the Hurley farm are top-quality and underpins the farm's financial performance.

Calving is mainly in January and February, with some autumn-calving cows. Cows are a mixture of Limousin-cross and Belgian Blue-cross with a Belgian Blue stock bull with good terminal traits and AI terminally-bred Charolais sires underpinning the production of top-quality weanlings.

“We always had a key focus on genetic indexes and really utilising the information that we have available to us. What we are aiming to have is a calf per cow per year, have cows that have good milk yield ability and can produce weanlings that have excellent average daily gain.”

Soil fertility and clover are important contributors to grass growth.

Performance on the farm in this regard is impressive, with ICBF data presented at the walk detailing an average calving interval of 369 days, a calves per cow figure per year of 0.97 and an average daily gain in progeny of 2.06kg/day.

Grassland management

Alan says that given the high cost of organic concentrates there is a strong focus on minimising concentrate feeding and strategic usage. “We try and use very little concentrates and have the best grassland management we can have. The key to that is utilising farmyard manure and slurry as effectively as possible.”

Alan Hurley discussing suckler breeding on the farm alongside his father, John (on left).

A lot of effort is put into ensuring soil fertility is maintained in an optimum range. The farm was recently soil sampled as part of the Department’s pilot soil sampling programme. Soil pH is good and ranges from 6.3 to 7.2. With regard phosphorus levels, 30% of the farm is index 3 and 70% index 2 while 60% of the farm is index 4 for potassium with the remaining 40% at index 3.

John also says the use of bioinoculants, including biostimulant pelleted fertilisers, and biostimulant additives for slurry and farmyard manure has had a big positive effect in terms of maintaining soil fertility and boosting grass growth.

Weeds are not a significant issue on the farm and are controlled by mechanical means such as topping.

Rotating silage/hay cutting areas with grazing areas and recycling nutrients to where they are most needed is critical. There are generally 30 acres (12.1ha) cut for silage delivering about 250 round bales and eight acres (3.2ha) cut for hay delivering in the region of 60 round bales.

Sheep enterprise

The ewe flock comprises approximately 70 Rouge de l’Ouest x Charollais-cross ewes and 30 Rouge de l’Ouest x Texel-cross ewes. A closed flock policy is operated with a five-star maternally bred Rouge ram used to breed replacements while five-star terminally bred Charollais rams are mated with ewes not used to breed replacements.

The system has traditionally focused on early lambing (1 February) and getting lambs off the farm early with minimal concentrate feeding. Ewes generally receive 0.5kg concentrate supplementation daily for a 60-day window around lambing with lambs receiving targeted feeding as required.

Lambs are marketed through the QualEUtex lamb producer group and slaughtered in Kepak Athleague. E and U grading lambs receive a 30c/kg bonus. Some lambs are also sold in Dawn Meats Ballyhaunis.

Given concentrates are now costing €700/t, the Hurleys have decided to tweak their system and push forward lambing until 1 April in 2023 to reduce their exposure to concentrate costs.

Farm performance

Table 1 details the 2021 financial performance of the system and contrasts it to comparable national farm survey results for 2020. The high quality of progeny underpins a positive gross output figure of €1,070 from a stocking rate of just 1.03 livestock units per hectare.

This is supported by the farm’s top-quality weanlings averaging €1,072 in 2021. These were also sold conventionally in local sales in Roscommon and Elphin. The farm’s gross margin is €571/ha, 50% above the national farm survey average figure while the inclusion of the €170/ha organic payment lifts this to €741/ha.

There is no doubting the Hurley family are doing a top job in producing an excellent-quality product. The only drawback to the farm walk was leakage from the system with all output being sold conventionally.

Some producers who are selling all or a percentage of their produce through organic channels voiced concern that there is a drive to increase organic participation which they say is likely to result in a further oversupply in the market and potentially erode their route to market. It is therefore paramount that markets are developed in line with any increase in participation.

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