Pics & video: Behind the scenes on an organic farm finishing 700 cattle

Scale is not always associated with organic beef production, but one Co. Tipperary beef farmer is changing the game.

John Purcell farms in Golden, Co. Tipperary, where he finishes 1,000 organic beef cattle on an annual basis. This makes the farm the largest organic beef farm in the country.

Approximately 700 cattle are finished on the farm each year, with a further 300 produced under a B&B agreement, he told the 200-strong crowd that attended a farm walk held on his farm recently.

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Making the move to organic beef

Purcell inherited the family’s farm in 1999, which consisted of 300ac of owned land and a further 155ac of rented ground.

He told the crowd in attendance that the first two years of farming beef in the conventional way were difficult.

During the first two years of farming I lost money and the move to organic beef was solely a commercial decision.

The move to organic beef production was also influenced by his involvement with Good Herdsmen Ltd, an organic beef processor in Cahir, Co. Tipperary.

Purcell is a Director of the company which has an annual throughput of 7,000 cattle. He said that 60% of the product is exported, while 40% of the beef produced is consumed domestically.

From his involvement in the processing side, he noticed that organic beef cattle numbers tend to be in short supply in the first six months of the year.

And as a result of this shortage, he focused on finishing cattle over the winter to make the most of the higher prices on offer early in the year.

Farm layout:
  • Permanent pasture: 79ha
  • Traditional pasture: 5ha
  • Red clover and ryegrass silage swards: 40ha

Diets and finishing system

Unlike conventional beef systems, concentrate input is limited on the Purcell’s farm due to the high cost associated with organically certified concentrates.

The typical finishing period for beef animals on the farm is 90 days, Purcell said, with animals fed 30kg of red clover/grass silage and 1.5-2kg of organic wheat daily.

There are about 130t of organic wheat purchased each year, he said, as purchasing organically certified concentrates would not be viable.

I can buy organic grains for €330/t, compared to €600/t for organic certified feed.

The majority of the cattle on the farm are finished by 30 months, producing carcass weights of 250-350kg.

The store cattle on the farm are also offered a diet consisting red clover/grass silage during the first winter and second winter on the farm.

Purcell said that about 750 store cattle will be turned out to grass later this spring.

Sourcing organic cattle

Most of the cattle purchased on the farm are bought direct from organically certified farms, with a small number brought through special organic sales.

Rory Callanan is in charge of purchasing the animals on the farm.

Callanan said there are a wide variety of different breeds on animals purchased, with the exception of dairy animals, which do not suit the finishing system.

Last weekend, he said there were a number of store steers and heifers purchased at a special organic sale. And the farm paid €2.50-3.00/kg for organically certified steers, he said.

Purcell also said that the cattle are generally purchased from the same farmers every year, so they know the quality of the cattle they are getting before they even see them.

Organic housing facilities

The housing facilities on the farm also had to be adapted to the requirements of the organic certification body, Purcell said.

The housing facilities on the farm are a combination of old traditional slatted houses and new solid floor sheds.

The young stock are housed in the traditional slatted/loose sheds and thee very large solid floor sheds are used for the older finishing stock.

As part of organic certification, all animals require at least 50% of the housing to have a bedded solid floor and as a result, Purcell said that the farm uses about 2,000 bales of straw for bedding on an annual basis.

Economics of beef production

Steer and heifer production:
  • Steer purchase cost: €2.50-3.00/kg
  • Heifer purchase cost: €2.35-2.52/kg
  • Beef price: €5.20/kg
  • Carcass weight: 250-350kg
  • Finishing period feed cost: €3.13-3.75/day
  • Carcass value: €1,300-1,820

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