The farm buildings stand at the recent Teagasc organic walk on the farm of John Hurley, who farms with his family in Ballintubber, Co Roscommon, attracted close attention from the large crowd present.
This is not surprising given that animal housing standards are more stringent compared to conventional production and are reported to be a significant factor for some considering converting but not progressing with their plans.
As discussed elsewhere the Hurley family made the decision to reduce their suckler herd from 58 cows to 25 cows. This decision was influenced by two main factors – the perceived stock carrying capacity of the farm under organics and the number of animals existing housing could accommodate without having to invest heavily.
There are two main suckler sheds on the farm – a three-bay slatted suckler shed with a creep area, which is now used as a straw-bedded lie-back area, and a four-bay back-to-back slatted shed with three bays slatted on each side.
Under organic regulations, at least 50% of the floor area required for animals must be a solid-floored area which is bedded with acceptable materials such as ample straw, litter, wood shavings or rushes.
The remainder of the floor is permitted to be of slatted construction or non-bedded areas, or a combination of both.
Teagasc adviser Enda O’Hart addressed a number of questions which he says are frequently raised by farmers considering joining.
He said that peat bedding is not permitted under the organics scheme, while rubber mats which are scraped down will also not suffice instead of providing a bedded area. Rubber mats can be used on slatted areas but there is also no requirement to have these in place.
Additionally, bedding slats will not suffice to achieve the 50% bedded solid floored area. An option which is available in this regard is to replace the required area of slatted floor with solid concrete slabs. Concrete slabs must be supplied by manufacturers listed on the Department of Agriculture’s accepted slat list.
This option is also eligible for grant aid under the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS II) and this will remain the case in the impending On-Farm Capital Investment Scheme under the CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027.
The other major difference to conventional housing requirements is higher space allowances under organic farming. These are outlined in Table 1. Most conversions in a suckler context result in stock numbers being reduced to a level whereby they suit current numbers being accommodated in slatted sheds with a creep, lie-back or calving area or the construction of a lie-back area on to an existing slatted shed where space in the farmyard allows.
On the Hurley farm, a reduction in the number of suckler cows and the presence of straw-bedded areas in sheds meant no significant alterations were required.
Enda O’Hart used the example of the three-bay shed detailed in Figure 1 to demonstrate how to calculate the number of animals that can be housed in a given area.
The first port of call in assessing the accommodation is to check that at least 50% of the floor space is a solid floor area. In this instance, there is 54.6m2 solid floor lying space (14m x 3.9m) and 53.2m2 (14m x 3.8m) slatted floor area.
The shed is used for housing suckler cows and Enda says the figure used assumes cows weigh 600kg and require 6m2 of a space allowance. The total available space is 107.8m2 (14m x 7.7m) and this is sufficient to house 18 suckler cows (107.8m2/6m2).
If cows and calves are housed in spring for a number of weeks post calving, for example, then the 1.5m2 space requirement for a calf up to 100kg needs to be taken into account. This would reduce the number of cows that could be housed in this space to 14 cows and their calves.
Likewise, the presence of a bull in the shed would have a significant impact, with a space requirement of 10m2.
There is another three-bay back-to-back slatted shed on the farm with a straw-bedded area running across two bays and the feed passage area at the bottom of the shed. To operate this shed, slatted pens on both sides of the shed are decommissioned with animals having access from three slatted pens to the straw-bedded area.
In addition, there are straw-bedded calving areas and loose housing for sheep giving ample space for the stock numbers present.
It was also noted at the event that housing is not compulsory and animals can be outwintered but the farm also needs to ensure it meets nitrates requirements in terms of slurry storage requirements and stocking densities where animals are outwintered.
Another topic of discussion was raised during questions on the farm buildings stand.
The main shed on the Hurley farm has dividing gates between the slatted and straw-bedded area. This is designed to allow more straightforward cleaning and ensure farmer safety when bedding animals. Animals can only be confined to these areas when these tasks are taking place and must have unrestricted access to the solid-floored area at all times.
As mentioned already, there is grant aid funding available under the TAMS II Organic Capital Investment Scheme with the standard rate of grant aid being 40% and 60% for young trained farmers up to an investment ceiling of €80,000 excluding VAT.
Speaking at the event, Kevin McGeever from the Department’s Organic Unit said that the Department hopes to increase the standard level of grant aid to 50% under the revamped Organic Farming Scheme as a further incentive to increase application numbers.