22 November 1996


Margins from organic dairying can be high

but management is demanding.

Jessica Buss reports

ORGANIC milk production is profitable claims one Oxon tenant farmer.

Miles Saunders stopped using fertiliser and chemicals at Step Farm, Faringdon in 1989 – and has sold organic milk from his 180-cow herd since 1991.

He uses alternative treatments to reduce antibiotic use and can only use 650kg/cow a year non-organic concentrates.

Managing without nitrogen fertilisers requires a field rotation that includes legumes and clover in the grazing leys.

White clover is used for grazing to produce nitrogen for the grass and high protein forage which is useful for balancing rations. The white clover lasts three to four years when stitched into an existing sward or planted with perennial ryegrass, says Mr Saunders.

Silage leys which last two to three years include red clovers which compete better than the white clover in a cutting regime.

"It is possible to produce good quality silage without fertiliser," he says. "This years silage is 14.4% crude protein and 11.9ME."

Biological additives are used to aid silage fermentation, but acids are not permitted.

"Manures are a valuable asset that we try to maximise. Liquids are stored and spread over summer months and solids composted during winter and spring." Composting makes more of the nutrients available to the plants, he says. Some composted muck is applied to grazing ground in spring and some goes onto arable land in early autumn.

Emphasis on forage

Forage accounts for over 60% of the total mixed ration fed – so the emphasis is on feeding plenty of forage, claims Mr Saunders. His current stocking rate is 1.7 livestock units/ha (0.69/acre).

To provide a mixed forage diet wheat is harvested as whole-crop. He prefers to use whole-crop because maize needs seed dressings which are not permitted and it is, he believes, a crop hungry for nutrients. Whole-crop can be cut to help clean a weedy field that cannot be treated with herbicides.

Also included in the cow ration are organic beans, wheat from fields being converted to organic status and purchased non-organic linseed expeller and prairie meal. No more than 650kg a cow a year of non-organic concentrates are allowed, with no solvent extracted or animal by-products permitted.

"The cows tend to get in calf fairly easily on the 26-litre ration with a calving interval of 372 days and the average yield just over 6000 litres," says Mr Saunders.

"Although we are allowed to use antibiotics for treatment we aim to reduce stress by trying not to overcrowd buildings and by having good ventilation." He believes less stress means less disease.

Mr Saunders also uses homeopathic remedies in the water to build up resistance to mastitis and to treat other illnesses such as lameness, infertility, milk fever, new forest eye and pneumonia.

"It takes time to build up expertise and confidence in alternative treatments, but they can work well. There are no withdrawal periods and the homoeopathic products are much cheaper," he says. "Homoeopathic remedies dont always work but neither do antibiotics," he says. "But no animal is allowed to suffer and for an acute case of mastitis or pneumonia we go straight in with antibiotics."

When antibiotics are used milk must be withheld for three times the period on the product licence.

Antibiotic dry cow therapy is forbidden so to avoid problems at drying off cows are milked once a day to reduce milk supply slowly and then milked on alternate days right down to no milk production.

Once the cow is dry the teat is sealed using plastic skin or Leucopor tape and stockholm tar is put on the udder, but not the teats, for fly prevention.

Mr Saunders keeps a close eye on dry cows and brings them back into the cowshed weekly for checking and sorting.

To control cell counts the cows are individually tested monthly and the milking parlour is tested three-times a year. Current rolling somatic cell count is 154,000 cells/ml.n

Right: Although antibiotics are allowed to treat cows producing organic milk , Miles Saunders chooses homoeopathic remedies to treat many illnesses. Below: Cows at Step Farm are fed organic forages and mainly organic concentrates, with only 650kg a year of non-organic concentrates permitted.


&#8226 Grass silage 8.9

&#8226 Whole-crop wheat 3.2

&#8226 Beans 2.1

&#8226 Wheat 2.1

&#8226 Linseed expeller 1.6

&#8226 Prairie meal 0.5


&#8226 Produced with no nitrogen fertiliser for grassland

&#8226 Homeopathic remedies used in preference to antibiotics

&#8226 Clover essential for grazing and silage leys

&#8226 Restrictions on non-organic concentrates fed