1 March 2002

Medication and marketing are the big issues

By Jeremy Hunt

North-west correspondent

MEDICATION and marketing for a premium price are the two most important issues met on the road to organic conversion.

For Lake District farm manager Stephen Marsden these issues will be priorities in the coming months as the 286ha (700-acre) Matson Ground Farm at Windermere achieves full organic status. The farm carries a flock of 1200 ewes – 400 Swaledale and 800 Mules – and 100 spring-summer calving sucklers.

Last year, without the routine use of clostridial vaccines, lamb losses were unacceptable. Losses were mainly caused by pulpy kidney and pneumonia. "It was difficult knowing these lambs could have been saved if we had used vaccination," says Mr Marsden.

This year a special derogation will be sought from Organic Farmers and Growers, after a written request from Mr Marsdens vet concerning use of the vaccine on animal welfare grounds.

There was also no routine worming last year, which led to lambs carrying high midsummer worm burdens. The regular six-weekly worm dosing was stopped and just two drenches were given when necessary last summer.

"We had a worm-burden analysis taken and it was high, so worming was justified, but withdrawal times are three times longer for organic lambs," he says.

And this years lamb crop and three-quarter-bred Limousin beef cattle will need to find organic buyers to earn the premiums needed to cover higher costs, including concentrate feed at £150/t instead of £120/t.

The switch to organic production means some Limousin-cross suckler herd progeny – previously sold as strong stores – will now be kept and finished. Stores will also be sold to other organic finishers.

But with no organic meat marketing scheme established in Cumbria, selling stock produced at Matson Ground will require greater effort. He is no longer able to take advantage of the convenience of selling a trailer load of finished lambs at the local auction.

The situation facing Mr Marsden this year highlights the typical marketing frameworks fragmentation within the organic meat sector.

Matson Ground Farm lies in a tourist area and the wealth of hotels and restaurants would be obvious customers for locally produced organic meat.

"We need a Cumbria organic meat marketing scheme and a big promotion drive."

Without a local buyer for organic lamb, he expects to market stock through the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative. Prices of about £2.70/kg are anticipated, which is about £1/kg more than conventional supplies.

He also believes the Cumbria Fellbred scheme for conventional primestock, run by auctioneers Penrith Farmers and Kidds, would be ideal if it added organically reared meat to its range.

"We have sold stock through the Cumbria Fellbred scheme, but there has been no mention so far about buying organic beef and lamb. We need to find a market for about 20 organic lambs a week during the late summer early autumn.

"Organic conversion has proven a challenge on all counts, but it is the only way we can try and make more from what we produce on upland farm like this.

"You have to believe in it. I would advise anyone considering converting to be sure they are determined to succeed because it can be frustrating," says Mr Marsden.

Seek guidance

LIVESTOCK producers embarking upon organic conversion should seek professional guidance from an organic adviser, regarding the impact on stock health and welfare.

Steve Belton of the Shropshire-based Organic Farmers and Growers organisation says it is important to assess possible effects on animal health when conventional treatments are withdrawn.

"An adviser or a vet with experience of other organic producers in the area will predict any problems and help formulate a health plan to try and cope with them.

"Those in conversion should not have to suffer unnecessary livestock losses in their first season as a result of abandoning preventative medication such as anthelmintics, flukicides and clostridial vaccines.

Kate Rogerson of Cumbria Organics says the other main concern among newcomers to organics is marketing. "Our group has not regarded setting up a marketing scheme as part of its remit, but we are trying to obtain funding to facilitate a marketing adviser.

"We believe it is far better to create a trading information point – someone who can act as a middle-man – to advise new organic producers. They could also link those with stock to sell with those trying to source organic stock." &#42

Without clostridial vaccination last year, losses were unacceptably high with lambs suffering pulpy kidney, says Stephen Marsden.

&#8226 Vaccine needed for welfare.

&#8226 Managing worm burdens.

&#8226 No marketing scheme.