5 January 2001

College farm makes cautious organic entry

A measured entry into organic

production is paying off for

one college farm in Co Durham.

FWs new NE correspondent

Wendy Owen reports

ORGANIC spring wheat has shown a superb gross margin but the jury is still out on organic pigmeat at a college farm which recently converted some of its land to organic status.

The gross margin of £890.75/ha (compared with £541.99 for the conventional crop) on the 6.5ha (16 acres) of organically-grown spring wheat variety, Paragon, has meant that a further 4ha (10 acres) will be drilled this year at Houghall Farm, Houghall, Durham.

Farm manager, Edward Richardson, said wet weather at harvest affected the crop and he has even higher hopes for 2001. Last years analysis showed the organic wheat at 13% protein, with a Hagberg of 234 and a bushel weight of 73.

Mr Richardson explains that he could not find organic spring wheat seed but organic standards mean that conventional seed can be sown with permission, as long as it is undressed. The Paragon seed suited his farm and was one of the cheapest on the market at the time.

"If the wheat had achieved milling standards the return would have been even greater," he says. "The seed was the only real variable cost although a mechanical weeder went through just before first node stage, and that wasnt costed in."

Other pressures

The 148ha (365-acre) farm, which is part of the East Durham Community College Group, has converted 18ha (45 acres) to organic status. The first 8ha (20 acres) were converted in 1991 but due to other pressures (because the farm belongs to the college) nothing further was done until 1998-1999, when the remainder was put under conversion, allowing for more scope in rotations.

The college previously had 100 indoor sows which were losing money. Of these, 12 were kept on to trial an outdoor organic system. Converted in May 2000, the herd achieved full organic status by the end of 2000 and then it is hoped that finished pigs will bring a premium price. At the moment, it is just breaking even financially, partly because the organic feed is double the price of conventional feed.

The two main problems are the small herd size and the location of the farm.

"We are a long way from the nearest organic abattoir and with such a small herd it is difficult to get a buyer interested. It is not hard to source organic feed but I can only get large quantities delivered and it deteriorates in storage. I have to use bagged feed, and that is expensive so I have had to compromise on feeding."

From having a indoor pig vet bill of £500 a month, plus the additional cost of medicated feed, the farm has seen a huge improvement in herd health since the pigs went outside last year, with the vet being called out only once, to attend to a sow with a retained litter. Worms were a worry with the outdoor system but a faecal analysis showed no worms present so the only worm control involved is periodic worm counts. If worms are found, a grazing rotation will be used to disrupt the worm cycle.

Top two grades

"On the conventional system, 93-95% of finishers were achieving the top two grades but now it is only 60%. This is partly due to the small numbers for selection and because it is more difficult to weigh and select the pigs when they are outside. Another possible reason is that we used to feed to appetite whereas now it is more labour-saving to feed ad-lib."

The farrowing index has gone down from 2.4 on the intensive system to 1.8 in the organic outdoor unit. The Saddleback sows are mated with a Large White/Landrace boar to produce 200 pigs a year. These are finished at 75-80kgs and housed in huts and runs which have to be moved every 8 weeks.

The college has grown vegetables for a number of years but the first organic produce was planted on two acres in June last year. The marketing of the potatoes and eight other types of vegetables has taken a lot of time and effort to get started; some are sold through a local wholesaler and some through a box scheme

"I think I have about the right amount of organic land for the time being," said Mr Richardson. "Now I want to see some good returns before I go any further."

Farm manager Edward Richardson (left) with Aidan Harrison, chairman of Northumbrian Organic Producers.

The farm has seen a big improvement in herd health since the pigs went outside.

Dry sows at Houghall. Huts and runs are moved every eight weeks, a task that takes a full day.

Spring wheat gross margin

versus conventional spring

wheat gross margin at

Houghall (per ha)


Variable Costs

organic

spring conv

wheat 1st wheat

Seed £42.53 £59.85

Sprays £00.00 £91.35

Fertiliser £00.00 £45.81

TOTAL £42.53 £197.01

Output

Wheat sales £719.18 £525

(4.35t/ha @ (8.9t/ha @

£165/t) £59/t)

Area aid £214.00 £214.00

Total £933.18 £541.99

Gross margin £890.75 £541.99