Information on the latest intake of farmers to the organic farming scheme (OFS) shows a continued trend of the majority of applications coming from suckler/beef and sheep producers.
It is likely that the number of participants with sheep farming as their main enterprise now tops 2,000 holdings, while a significant number of the other 3,000 farms participating in the OFS also possess sheep.
There has been a considerable uptake of the scheme along the western seaboard with higher payments and lower stocking rate requirements supporting a jump in applications.
Many holdings are located on more marginal ground where alternative cropping and the saving of high feed-value forage is more challenging.
Many such systems would have normally filled the nutritional deficit preorganics with concentrates, but with organic feed costing anywhere from two and a half to three times the cost of conventional concentrates there is a reluctance by many to dip into scheme payments to purchase the same volume of feed.
However, unless forage feed quality has improved or circumstances have changed, providing access to adequate supplies of high-quality feed, then producers need to be very careful.
There is little option for many farmers except purchasing additional feed with serious consequences on the horizon if ewes entering late pregnancy are not adequately fed.
Reports indicate that there is also some average quality organic concentrate feed on the market containing poor-quality ingredients in terms of energy and presenting an even greater cost than anticipated. Reports from many advisers point to farmers purchasing feed on the basis of organic certification and scheme compliance and not actually questioning the true feeding value of concentrates or feed buckets.
These concerns are being echoed by Michael Gottstein, head of sheep knowledge transfer progamme, Teagasc.
The information listed on the label is typically crude protein, crude oil, crude fibre, mineral inclusion levels and ingredients listed in descending order.
There is no energy value for the formulated feed listed on the feed label.
Michael explains that the only way for many producers to get a feel of the energy value of the feed is to examine the ingredient listing and become familiar with the energy content of different ingredients.
Traffic light system
The Teagasc sheep team has been using the traffic light system detailed in Figure 1 to demonstrate a better understanding of feed quality. The ingredients in green shading are feeds with a high energy content.
Peas and beans are being used more commonly in organic feeds as a protein source, but some feeds are also utilising the ingredients in the red column, some of which have a high protein content but a very low energy rating.
Michael outlines that the first few ingredients on the list should ideally be from the green listing.
Some medium energy-value ingredients in the orange column can have merit but not at high inclusion rates, while serious questions have to be asked if the ingredients in red are located high up the ingredient inclusion listing.
He outlines that there are an increased number of traders now handling organic feed with some very good feed also on the market. This, in cases, is stemming from merchants selling cereal-based mixes or tillage farmers who have developed trading relationships with farmers or who have opted to sell direct.
Reported prices for organic cereals such as oats and barley are upwards of €450/t to €500/t and, in many cases, this offers better value than more expensive concentrates with lower-quality feeds included.
There is also a perception in organics that soya bean cannot be used. No GM feed can be offered in organics but trading avenues for non-GM soya are improving leaving more options despite the very high price of upwards of €1,300/t.
Michael advises that as only small quantities are required in the final weeks of gestation and possibly early lactation, then the cost should not be prohibitive with a growing number of producers said to be purchasing soya bean as a top-up to their normal organic feed.
He encourages organic producers to seek advice and source out feeds which offer good value for money.
Late pregnancy feeding principles
Many flocks are now entering the critical late-pregnancy feeding stage. The complication at this stage of gestation is competition in the ewe for space with the rapidly growing foetus(es) restricting a ewe’s ability to eat.
Michael says the extent to which this happens is often a little bit over exaggerated but highlights that once concentrate feeding increases to a high level, a ewe’s ability to digest forage starts to reduce rapidly, as the inclusion of high levels of starch reduces their ability to digest forage.
Table 1 outlines the energy requirements of ewes in late pregnancy, using the UFL system for categorising the level of energy in a feed. One UFL is equivalent to the energy contained in a kilo of air-dried barley. As can be seen in Table 1, a dry ewe requires 0.8UFL, so roughly 0.8kg barley will satisfy this.
The energy requirement remains static in early and mid-pregnancy, rising by 0.4UFL in late pregnancy. These figures also assume that a ewe mobilises about a third of a body condition score loss.
“Generally, what we see is ewes not able to eat enough energy, particularly forage, to meet nutritional demand and that is where the meal comes in very important.
“By and large, unless silage is exceptionally good, concentrates will be needed, as we will still be looking for some additional protein going in there to ensure we have a good supply of really good-quality colostrum.”
The large spike in energy required in early lactation will be satisfied by access to good-quality grass, highlighting the importance of having grass available to prevent feed costs escalating.
In terms of protein, during the dry period, mating and early gestation, very little protein is required and most of silage or roughage feeding will deliver what protein is required. In late pregnancy, over 200g of protein is required, as detailed n Table 2 and Michael explains it is not just the quantity of protein that is important but also type.
“There are two types of protein, rumen degradable protein which is basically the protein that is digested by the bugs in the rumen, which provides the protein.
“Sheep require some of this to digest food but what we really want during the last two to three weeks is what is called digestible undegradable protein (DUP). This is often termed bypass protein or rumen undegradable protein and it is basically a protein source which is not digested in the rumen and is digested by the animal further down the digestive tract in the same way as humans would be digesting protein.
“The best type of DUP protein available is soya bean meal. This is an expensive feed but Michael points out that roughly 100g per lamb carried will go a long way in satisfying needs and the window of feeding is short across the final two weeks of gestation.
“For hill ewes weighing about 55kg, we are talking about 70% of the rates shown. If someone had really big Suffolk/Texel lowland cross ewes that are up on 85kg, we would need to increase the allowances to take account of the bigger ewe type. This is expressed in Table 3, which shows the challenge of providing enough energy when dry matter intake is declining.
Ration formulation principles
When looking at the target or desirable attributes of a concentrate Michael outlines the following pointers. The figures are based on an as fed basis per kilo of feed.
The target for a 70kg ewe is over 200g in final weeks, including the aim of 40g of this being DUP (see feeding advice section). He says, for some farms, it may be possible to go with a 16% to 18% CP ration and then top up for the last two weeks with a bit of soya bean.
Important to have cal mag, as it helps to prevent milk fever pre-lambing (helps process of mobilising calcium) and grass tetany post-lambing.
Organic feed and scheme rules
Cathal McCauley is a Teagasc organic adviser based in Manorhamilton and covering Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo. Cathal outlines that the first important principle when looking at rules and regulations concerning organic feed and minerals is that at least 60% of the dry matter in daily rations must consist of roughage, fresh or dried fodder or silage.
It is important to note that the 60% rule is post-weaning and, as such, does not apply to diets for lambs and calves until they are weaned.
Once a farmer converts to an organic system, their feed must firstly be organically certified or if you are sourcing your feed from organic tillage farmers example it must be GM-free.
“That’s important in relation to mineral lick buckets too to ensure the ingredients in it are GM-free. If a product is certified organic, that means it is already certified as GM-free.”
Cathal outlines that in an organic system, there are essentially three options when sourcing feed, buy from a mill/merchant, direct from a tillage farmer or grow your own feed.
“Depending on land type and depending on your own situation, one of these three options may suit or you may be able to combine these options to develop a ration that’s the best possible quality for the needs of your flock – eg growing one product and purchasing others to mix with the diet.”
If sourcing direct from a tillage farmer, one of the important records which you must obtain and keep a copy of is the organic licence of the tillage farmer.
It’s the same if you are purchasing livestock of another organic farmer, you must retain a copy of their licence too.
There are a few details that must be maintained including the date of purchase
Feed purchase records must be recorded in your organic records book.
“There are a few details that must be maintained including the date of purchase, the quantity purchased and maybe a few other details such as the batch number that have to be written into your book.
“It’s good practice and I know the organic certification bodies like to see that there is a label kept of each batch of feed that you buy – eg if you buy a batch of bags, just pull a label of one and keep that on record and, of course, keep the invoices to present at an inspection.”
The supplementation of minerals in organics is closely regulated. Minerals can only be supplemented to animals on the back of an identified need, which must be detailed in the flock’s animal health plan.
Cathal explains that there are four forms of justification that will be accepted – forage mineral analysis, blood analysis, soil analysis and a letter from your vet.
The first three forms must identify aspects to warrant supplementation, while the letter from your vet can justify supplementation on the back of a history of working with the farm and previous experience with mineral deficiencies.
Straight mineral licks are allowed provided they are GM-free, while mineral licks with molasses can be used, but you must have prior approval by your organic certification body. It is advised by certification bodies to use organic licks, where possible, but if these are not seen as adequate then mineral drenches and boluses are permitted.
“If you are in doubt remember to always consult your organic certifying body (OCB) before purchasing any feed or minerals.”