31 August 2001

Marketing key as supply of organic produce rises

Finding a market for organic

stock was a key consideration

for one producer, as he

made the decision to begin

organic conversion.

Robert Davies reports

GOOD marketing will become increasingly important as supplies of organic beef become more plentiful, says Wye Valley producer Graham Goodwin.

Mr Goodwins family have farmed Sheephouse Farm at Hay-on-Wye since 1851 and, as in most livestock rearing areas, management changes tend to evolve slowly.

During his time in the business he has seen Continental cattle breeds replace white-faced Herefords and prolific halfbred ewes replace native purebreds. But the basic approach has remained the same; producing prime cattle and lambs that meet market specifications.

The 160ha (400-acre) farm, which is located within two miles of the Hereford border, can grow plenty of high quality grass, he says. But parts of the farm are prone to flooding and heavy soils mean it can be difficult to graze cattle after late September.

Hay-on-Wye has become a Mecca for second-hand book buyers, who mingle with thousands of tourists attracted by the lush green landscape. They see cattle and sheep grazing contentedly and leave with a perception that traditional farming methods are still employed. Mr Goodwin believes that this clean, green, welfare-friendly image of his part of Powys is a saleable asset.

For the past year, beef and lamb produced at Sheephouse has had the added bonus of being labelled organic. The Waitrose chain already markets his lamb as a Welsh organic product and he hopes to see his beef branded in the same way.

"We already get premiums, but as more organic producers come on line specifications will tighten. I know I have to produce what buyers want. But to maximise returns we can also exploit the concept of production based on the green, green grass of Wales," says Mr Goodwin.

The decision to go organic was prompted by several years of lacklustre beef margins. He knew he had to do something, but profits from cattle were never likely to justify significant investment. Fortunately, the farm had an excellent range of cattle buildings.

Philip Morgan of Welsh Livestock Marketing, which procures both farm assured organic and conventionally produced lambs for Waitrose, spelled out what was required to supply organic lamb and the likely premiums.

"I did talk to other potential buyers, but none of the others showed the same level of interest and commitment to people in conversion. Now, I am also selling organic cattle to the chain through the same abattoir, which is less than 90 minutes from the farm."

The biggest problem so far has been finding beef herd bred organic store cattle to finish. The aim is to market up to 250 head a year, but yearling stores were in such sort supply that he was forced to buy some poorer quality cattle and some that were younger than he hoped to get. He had to pay a premium of 15-20% to buy the organically produced animals, but early signs suggest that this is recoverable through the end price.

Purchased stock summer on grass before being housed when the steers weigh about 450kg. The winter ration is ad-lib top quality silage and the maximum amount of brewers grains and sugar beet pulp allowed by organic farming rules.

Growth rate from housing is about 0.8kg a head a day. Steers are killed at about 600kg liveweight, or when they are most likely to produce an R4L carcass. The relatively slow growth rate means over-fatness is not a problem with the heifers, but inferior confirmation can be. Fewer females will be kept if the EU continues to allow support payments on more than 90 male cattle and more organic store steers reach the market.

Forage quality is seen as the key to successful finishing. Clover has been slot-seeded into some swards, but scratching the surface before broadcasting seed and treading it in with a mob of sheep has proved more effective.

Most farmyard manure is spread in spring. Silage areas get an early dressing and to avoid contamination and no more is applied until after the final cut. Ewes and lambs graze before the first of several modest cuts of high quality young herbage is taken.

"Because we cannot turn to inorganic fertiliser when grass gets short, management has to be flexible. Stocking rate is being cut, but we are still trying to find the optimum level. I have learned that patience is the first requirement for anyone converting to organic farming."

Mr Goodwin, who farms in partnership with his wife, Lyn, and mother, Ivy, plans to finish up to 250 bought-in stores a year and run up to 600 ewes. Welsh halfbreds will probably be replaced by Texel x Halfbred ewes on which Suffolk and Meatlink rams will be used.

"The meat industry is changing and farming has to adjust. I see nothing wrong with producers working closely with abattoirs and supermarkets that are willing to give producers a fair deal.

"Things will get more difficult for organic farmers, who now have a good market for everything they produce, so the sector must be geared to offering a quality branded product 52 weeks of the year," he says. &#42

ORGANIC BEEF

&#8226 High quality forage essential.

&#8226 Sourcing stores difficult.

&#8226 Working with abattoir.

Beef 2001 event

The NBAs Beef 2001 event will be held at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, Glos on Sept 14.

The event will have six focus areas:

&#8226 Suckler cows for the future – sponsored by Lindsays AI.

&#8226 Feed and nutrition – sponsored by Rumenco.

&#8226 Organic beef – sponsored by Caltech.

&#8226 Meat

&#8226 Quality beef from the dairy herd – sponsored by Quality Calves.

&#8226 On-line BCMS registration demonstration and cyber café – sponsored by NMR Agrisoft.

For full details of the event see farmers weeklys livestock special next week.