Organic Hill Country Trial

April 2010

Results of a ten year trial on organic hill country farming

A world-first 10-year trial by agricultural science institute AgResearch shows hill-country sheep and beef farmers can make the change to organics without harming animal health. But the study shows production from organics is lower and a substantial premium is needed to make up the difference.

Organic farmers the Blaikies who run organic sheep and beef but havent got all the eggs in that basket. They also run poultry.

A 2001 Agriculture and Forestry Ministry-commissioned study began on Agresearchs Ballantrae hill country research station. The trial was held on four 20-hectare blocks, two farmed organically and two conventionally.

Each farmlet was stocked at 12su/ha. They ran 90 mixed aged ewes, their replacements, eight breeding cows and six rising R1 and 5R2 heifers.

The organic farm trial was run using two BioGro NZ certified standards and systems.

Animals were weighed regularly, young stock monthly. Wool production, lambing and scanning rates, stock deaths and numbers of stock requiring treatment were all recorded. From weaning, FEC samples were taken monthly on lambs. Pasture composition was measured each spring, as was soil fertility.

The study found that the biggest challenge to hill country organics was dealing with internal parasites. Without the chemical drenches, young sheep and cattle struggled to gain weight in the months following weaning. Other problems came from not being able to use chemicals to combat flystrike or to kill woody weeds, such as gorse.

But despite this, the trial showed that organic sheep and beef farming on hill country is possible. "Some sceptics said the system would fall over," Dr Alec Mackay (AgResearch) says. "It didn't fall over. The parasite levels didn't get to a point where they were unmanageable."

The big surprise was to find that once the organic and conventional systems had settled down after two or three years, their performances stayed the same distance apart, regardless of the varying climatic conditions.

The study looked at ways to reduce the health challenges facing young sheep in the organic system, but they add considerably to the farm workload.

Lamb production, the organic farm's biggest income source, relies on growing young stock to slaughter weights. However, lambs are most vulnerable to parasites. In the conventional systems they are drenched regularly from weaning. But on organic farms they cannot be drenched.

Alec says the alternative is to put them in paddocks with low parasite numbers. Those paddocks can be created by rotating animals, which have built up immunity, around the farm ahead of lamb mobs.

The trial found that the organic sheep developed resilience to parasites after about 12 months. However, during the next eight years their performance did not improve or worsen it stayed at 15 per cent below the conventionally farmed animals.

The main impact was on the liveweight of two-tooths. There was surprisingly little difference in lamb weights at weaning or in lamb losses from birth to weaning, but by the time the lambs were into the middle of autumn they were struggling to cope with the parasite challenge. As they came up to their second spring they put on a growth spurt, but they still ended up with a lighter mature bodyweight. This reduced their reproductive performance, which was reflected in lower scanning percentages and fewer lambs born.

Alec also suggests a two-tier system in which the bottom 10 per cent of lambs are removed from the organic paddocks at regular drafting and put into paddocks where they can be farmed semi- conventionally. These are lambs that are struggling with a heavy parasite load and contribute to pasture contamination.

Organic farmers must also be thinking 90 to 180 days ahead, not the 30 to 60 days for a conventional farmer, because they've got less room to manoeuvre, he says.

"If you run into a feed shortage, you can't do what conventional farmers do and put on some nitrogen, for example; if you run into a parasite problem you can't use a chemical drench without losing organic certification."

Alec Mckay says, "Without a premium you're not better off and you also have a system that is more challenging. This explains why the sector is still very small. You have to work a lot harder and you've got fewer options in your toolbox if things come unstuck." The study estimated a Hawke's Bay organic sheep and beef farm would need a premium of 50 per cent for both lamb and beef to make the same profit as a conventional farm.

Currently organic beef premiums were about 20 per cent. Most of the meat comes from farms on rolling country in the South Island, where the cold winters help with animal health problems, though the North Island has a few organic sheep and beef farms.

John and Pauline Blaikie are organic farmers northwest of Palmerston North at Rewa.

They started off with a nurse cow rearing operation at Rongotea. Theyve been at their current property for 15 years.

The property is 111ha. They run mob of around 200 Poll Dorset and composite ewes and have an organic market for them for the lambs.

They also buy in cattle heifers and bulls and finish them. The animals are farmed organically but not sold as such, although Pauline says theyve tried in the past to market themselves.

Pauline Blaikie says one of the challenges with the organic markets is that they often very specific about what they want. For example they dont tend to like composite breeds.

By far and away the biggest part of their farm operation now is free range poultry. Alec says that this is probably the answer or evolution of some of the issues that conventional farm systems have to converting to organics. He says the Blaikies mixed farm system is making better use of complimentary enterprises - and they have responded to the premium issue by putting their eggs in other baskets!