Castle Craig Farm and Pilgrim's Organics

May 2009

Organic sheep and beef farming and marketing

The 400 hectare Castle Craig Farm at Te Anga near Te Kuiti is farmed organically. On one half the propertys owners, Colin and Dorothy Gilbert, raise young dairy stock for organic dairy farmers plus grow sheep and beef. The other half is leased by their daughter Christabel and her husband Guy Pilgrim who grow and market sheep and beef under their Pilgrims Organics brand.

The two operations are run as separate businesses, but with a family approach to sharing yards, sheds and machinery plus pooling labour at busy times.

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFERS) provide help when needed plus Colin and Dorothy get help from a sharefarmer.

The Gilbert-Pilgrim family moved to New Zealand from a UK dairy farming background, eight years ago. The property has held full Bio-Gro organic certification for five years.

Dorothy Gilbert visited New Zealand the year before moving here, and was struck by the animal health problems being experienced on conventional modern dairy farms. She then took a look at organic dairy farms where these problems melted away, due she believes to soil organisms being much healthier with no harmful artificial fertilisers and chemicals being applied.

Healthy soil leads to healthy pastures, livestock and ultimately food and thus people, she says.

Guy and Christabel were attracted to organics as an appealing way of adding value to sheep and beef.

The previous owners low-input farming style made conversion to organics relatively easy, with the 300 Angus-based cattle and 600 Romney and Romney cross sheep adapting quickly to the new regime.

For Guy and Christabel, farming success depends not only on producing a good product, but developing a strong brand and telling an appealing story.

Some traditional farmers see organics as a do nothing approach, but this is far from the truth, says Guy. To be successful, an organic farmer must identify early when there is a potential animal health problem then take immediate action to minimise risks.

They do not have the option of blanket treating an entire mob or flock with a chemical remedy, so must be proactive rather than reactive.

For example, at Castle Craig Farm mass internal parasite outbreaks are avoided by alternate rotational grazing of sheep then cattle. Each species hosts specific parasites so cannot infect the other. With young stock being especially vulnerable to infestation, cattle are used to clean up pastures which lambs are weaned onto and vice versa.

Other strategies to avoid internal parasites include keeping paddocks spacious as infection can spread quickly when a large number of animals are confined in a small space, and feeding out hay to promote rumen development and health. To boost animals general health thus ability to resist health challenges, young stock are drenched twice a year with a seaweed and cider vinegar-based tonic.

When an animal is severely challenged by internal parasites, it is chemically drenched on welfare grounds. The same applies with antibiotics. In these cases, the treated animal is permanently removed from the organic system.

The approach is prevention rather than cure.

By tagging fly struck breeding ewes then culling those which were infested again the following year, the Pilgrims confirmed that some animals were especially susceptible and made some progress towards building resilience into especially the mature flock. However, this season has been extremely challenging especially for lambs which have been shorn several times through summer to make them less attractive to flies.

Conventional farmers in the district have confessed that they too, have had trouble keeping on top of fly this summer despite using chemical dips, says Guy.

Guy is especially interested in adding value to their lamb and beef through marketing. Organics is a strong selling point, he believes, with especially UK consumers demanding that their food be farmed in ways that are sustainable and environmental.

New Zealand is in such a good position to take advantage of the clean, green image that it still does have, he claims.

Contacts in the UK have confirmed that New Zealand lamb is often the cheapest option on British supermarket shelves. Guy and Christabel object to this positioning, saying that on a large global market it wont be possible to compete on price. Instead, there needs to be a point of difference such as the guarantee provided by Bio-Gro certification.

Pilgrims Organics targets the New Zealand market when possible, in the belief that environmentally it is makes more sense for their products be consumed in the local district rather than carted across the world. Prices are closely aligned with conventional prices, so that the many people who prefer to eat organic meat can afford to do so.

Stock is mostly killed at Ruakura abbatoir in Hamilton and has been processed at Harmony Foods in Paeroa. Initially animals were sold to Harmony, but nowadays the Pilgrims retain ownership of their lambs and sell them directly under their own brand.

A good proportion of lamb sales have been through farmers markets in the Auckland region. This strategy provided strong exposure for the Pilgrims brand and enabled Guy and Christabel to build a direct relationship with consumers. Cuts have been sold directly to restaurants including the Huhu Caf just down the road at Waitomo and wholesale to Auckland retailers including Nosh (where it was priced only $1-$2/kg above non-organic lamb) and Sabato.

There are also some direct sales of both sheep and beef through the Pilgrims Organics website.

People want to know the story behind the food they eat, says Guy. A lot of our customers in Auckland want to know where we farm, and what breed the meat comes from. The fact its organic is important to many.

The Pilgrims story is helped by the farm being extremely scenic, with limestone bluffs and a waterfall which look good on point-of-sale material.

While Guy admits that while he hasnt closely analysed the cost of producing organic versus non-organic meat, hes convinced that in an all-grass farming regime with no expensive supplements the difference isnt significant. While less animals might be run, there are savings in chemical inputs like animal health and fertiliser.

The Gilberts lambs are sold to CMP.

Direct marketing beef remains a challenge for the Pilgrims. Because cattle are so much bigger than sheep, selling entire animals as fresh and chilled cuts in the two week window before it must be frozen, has proved hard work. For now, much of their beef is sold to Harmony and some into the conventional market.

Next season the Gilberts hope to sell their beef through another organic farmer who markets directly to butchers, as a previous export beef outlet has closed due to the firm now buying from South America instead of New Zealand.

Despite demand for organic beef growing by about 20% annually both here and abroad, opportunities are not being realised here, says Dorothy. Abattoirs are finding the cost of organic audits too high for the size of the market. The cost of transporting small numbers of heavy beasts is a major problem. Also, many modern abattoirs lack the space to store beef while it is hung which means potentially good meant often ends up tough and lacking flavour.

Supplying up to five farmers markets with around 20 lambs each week demanded a lot of traveling time and energy, and the Pilgrims are slowly stepping back from this initial marketing phase to pursue opportunities in the wholesale and retail sectors.

Ultimately, theyd like to source more meat from other organic farmers.

While generally their customers are relatively affluent, there is interest in cheaper cuts such as diced and minced meats from those on a tighter budget.

The Gilberts currently graze over 400 dairy calves and heifers for eight organic farmers from Taranaki to just south of Auckland.

Dairy farmers in England for many years, the Gilberts initially planned to go dairying in New Zealand. However, when they settled here at the end of 2000, costs of buying a dairy farm and becoming a supplier were escalating.

Having already experienced the downfall of British dairy farming due to European Union influence on British farming policies, we werent willing to face such risk again.

Half flat and half hill, the Castle Craig property appealed as suitable for dairy cattle as well as beef and sheep, despite being 50km from the nearest town. Dairy heifer grazing offered a steady income without a large initial cost outlay, and the opportunity to continue enjoying the company of dairy cattle.

We dont like factory style farming and believe in being good stewards of the land; one of the main reasons that we a so comfortable with running the farm organically, says Dorothy.

Since purchasing the farm, the Gilberts have established fences and built races meanwhile improving pasture by systematic grazing.

Generally the pasture content has improved to an appetising variety of species including a good proportion of clover. We never need to re-seed which helps to retain soil fertility, lower costs, and retain moisture.

On an organic dairy course last year, the Gilberts were impressed to learn that grazing cattle produce 110% of the manure required by pasture to feed them.

In their first year of life, the main hazard facing the dairy heifers is intestinal worms. The longer they are raised on fresh milk the better, the Gilberts have found. It is important that they are kept in good condition with adequate minerals.

In their first year, the dairy grazers are kept moving forward on clean pastures not grazed by cattle for at least five weeks. They are not left on pasture for longer than five days, follow sheep, or graze fresh growth after silage or hay making.