Organic farming: Beef finisher sourcing 100% of feedstuffs from within the farm gate

Disillusioned and struggling to make a go of conventional beef finishing, Co. Monaghan farmer Mark Gillanders decided to make the switch to an organic farming system in 2008.

Prior to starting the two-year conversion process, Gillanders had been running a dairy calf-to-beef system and a herd of 10 suckler cows.

The high costs of concentrates and fertilisers in the previous bull-beef system had become prohibitive, so the Monaghan-based farmer decided to focus his efforts elsewhere.

After attending local farm demonstrations and walks, Gillanders realised that organic farming may be a more profitable system.

The farm entered the organic conversion process in 2009 and full organic status, for both the land and produce, was achieved in 2011.

Gillanders’ produce is certified under the Organic Trust.

“It wasn’t paying me to stay on the farm the way I saw conventional farming going,” Gillanders said at a recent Department of Agriculture/Teagasc farm walk held on his farm.

“I had seen a bit of organic farming and I said I would give it a go. I was farming three years before I saw the full benefits. It’s a completely different system, but it works,” he said.

Mark Gillanders and Teagasac’s Elaine Leavy pictured at the farm walk

Farm details

Gillanders farmed 32ha in 2016. This was divided into 27ha in one parcel around the farmyard and an additional 5ha located two miles away.

An extra 22ha block has been leased since January 1, 2017 and is in the first year of the two-year organic conversion period.

2017 planned land use:
  • Red and white clover: 1.5ha.
  • Combicrop: 5.5ha.
  • Oats: 6.5ha.
  • Forage rape: 6.0ha.
  • Red clover swards: 4.5ha.
  • White clover swards: 5.0ha.
  • Permanent pasture: 26ha.

A move to organic beef finishing

In the near future, Gillanders hopes to finish approximately 50 organic cattle under a winter finishing system. This will consist of a mixture of steers and heifers.

However, a winter finishing system hasn’t always been operated on the Monaghan-based holding. Gillanders initially sold all the progeny from his suckler cows as weanlings, but this changed in 2013.

Since then, all of the calves born on the farm have been brought to slaughter and marketed through Good Herdsman Organic Meats in Cahir, Co. Tipperary.

Organic store cattle are also purchased in various marts in the surrounding area to bring up the numbers for winter finishing.

Average livestock numbers 2016:
  • Suckler cows: 20.
  • 0-6 months: 9.
  • 6-12 months: 10.
  • 1-2 year olds: 21.
  • 2 year +: 4.
  • Bull: 1.

Gillanders explained that he tends to buy most of these cattle between July and February. This is the period when the demand for organic store cattle is at its lowest.

One bunch of stores purchased varied in age from 12 to 18 months and were bought in at a cost of €2.25-2.35/kg.

He also touched on the finishing system used on the farm. Heifers are slaughtered at approximately 340kg, while steers are a little heavier at 392-393kg.

The heifers receive approximately 120-250kg of organic meal prior to slaughter, while the steers are offered about 400kg of organic meal during the finishing period.

The average price received for both the steers and heifers at slaughter stands at approximately €4.80/kg.

Grazing management and silage production

Gillanders grazes the cattle on a rotational basis using a paddock system. They are grazed on both old pastures and recently-reseeded swards.

Given the system operated, silage plays an important role on Gillanders’ farm and three cuts of silage were taken last year.

A red clover ley of 3.2ha was sown in 2014 using 9kg of Hymer hybrid ryegrass and 4kg of Merviot red clover.

In May 2016, a 70% organic seed mixture containing spring barley and forage peas was sown. This was drilled in at 50kg/ac. A Magnum red and white clover silage ley was also broadcast on the same day at a seeding rate of approximately 14kg/ac.

Also in May 2016, another area of spring barley and forage peas was drilled. A Fortis white clover mixture was also broadcast on the same day at a seeding rate of 13kg/ac.

Organic cereals and combicrop

To improve the profitability of the livestock enterprise and to provide a valuable feed source over the winter months, Gillanders also grows a range of organic cereal crops.

Some of the surplus grain grown on the farm is sold to other organic farmers for €350-380/t – considerably higher than the returns generated from conventional tillage crops.

Since converting to organic farming, Gillanders has built up the amount of cereals grown on his farm.

In 2016, 3ha of organic oats were sown and harvested. This crop was harvested in late August and yielded 2t/ac.

In April of this year, 6.4ha of spring oats were also sown. This was an organic seed mixture made up of three different oat varieties.

These varieties ripen at the same time and offer disease resistance to a diverse range of cereal fungal diseases.

Combicrop

Gillanders has been growing combicrop – a simple, cost effective way to grow cereals and protein to feed livestock – on his farm since 2015.

In late March, the Monaghan-based farmer sowed 2.6ha of combicrop consisting of 40% peas and 60% wheat.

The combicrop was harvested in early September and yielded 2.7t/ac. In mid April of this year, in a different area, 4.5ha of combicrop (spring wheat and forage peas) was sown.

Forage crops

Along with growing a range of cereal and combicrops, Gillanders has also been utilising forage crop mixtures since 2015.

The forage crop mixture grown is Sprint, which is a 70% organic rape mixture containing the forage rape varieties of Sparta and Interval.

This crop was grazed by weanling heifers and finishers from late September 2016 right through until the last week of January.