19 November 1999

Organic premiums concern

How long can organic

premiums, a potential lifeline

for many West Country milk

producers, remain at

sustainable levels? Thats

the question being asked at

West Town Farm this week.

John Burns reports

ANDREW BRAGG is acutely aware of the importance of organic premiums to his business. But, while he receives a good 12p/litre more than many conventional producers, he is becoming increasingly concerned that such a premium could disappear.

With it could go a wonderful opportunity for milk producers in the West Country, he says. "We are very lucky that we already have the processors here – making organic cheeses and yoghurts – but if farmers dont work together this enormous opportunity could so easily be destroyed."

His recently renewed concern was prompted when he attended the annual general meeting of the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative, of which he is a very committed member. Speakers included a buyer for a large retailer, who spelled out exactly what his customers wanted.

"He told us they wanted milk and dairy produce to be natural and healthy. Apparently retailers dont care what the cell count of milk is – as long as it is under 400,000 – though they do care about TBC/Bactoscan. And what they worry most about is that individual farmers may compromise the organic standards."

That talk punched home to Mr Bragg the true meaning of marketing. "Its not about screwing the highest possible price out of them in the short term, though it does involve being strong enough sellers to ensure the price is high enough to maintain organic standards. Its all about providing what customers want and developing sustainable markets."

OMSCo pays 29.5p/litre flat rate. There are no seasonality payments and no adjustments for compositional or hygienic quality provided the milk meets the minimum standards of 3.7% fat, 3.2% protein, cell count under 400,000 and TBC less than 100.

It is a simple pricing system that suits producers and buyers alike, which makes him wonder why some producer groups pay according to cell count. But his main concern is the growing number of groups and companies competing for organic milk by offering higher prices than OMSCo. Seeing mainstream UK milk production in disarray because of voluntary and compulsory fragmentation reinforces his concern that the same thing could so easily happen to the organic sector.

Talk of milk leads on to the subject of mastitis prevention and treatment. The herd is loose-housed on generous straw bedding – even though that means buying in some straw. Apart from benefits to the cows, it provides a plentiful supply of dung to maintain or improve farm fertility.

Bullers are temporarily separated from the herd to avoid damage to other cows teats and udders. Homeopathic treatments are used for both prevention and treatments of mastitis, though they are not cheap, says Mr Bragg.

But he does not like to use antibiotics. "They kill good bacteria as well". However, in extreme situations, if the vet advises antibiotics they will be used and the extra-lengthy withdrawal periods required by the organic standards will be observed.

Monthly milk recording and testing, along with a good recording system, helps identify cows with problems, so that persistent cases can be culled. &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 West Town Farm, Ide, near Exeter, Devon, a 65ha (160 acre) farm rented from the Church Commissioners. Farmed organically since July 1992 by Andrew Bragg.

&#8226 Plus 26ha (64 acres) of owned land three miles away, in conversion to organic; 8ha (20 acres) of organic land on an FBT, one mile away; 10ha (25 acres) of organic grasskeep five miles away.

&#8226 80 to 85 dairy cows, plus followers, 320,000 litres milk quota.

&#8226 75 Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset ewes lambing in November.

&#8226 10-year Countryside Stewardship project on 91ha (224 acres)

&#8226 Free-draining, mainly sloping land, some steep.

&#8226 Triticale and spring barley grown for feed.

&#8226 Three full-time staff.

Lambing takes centre stage

Lambing of the Poll Dorsets is well under way at West Town Farm. There is plenty of grass so the only concentrate being fed is a token 140g (5oz) a head of rolled triticale to the in-lamb ewes just before they are housed for the night.

After lambing they rely on grazing alone, with kale and grazing rye available should the grass run out. As with the dairy herd, homeopathy is used for the sheep for prevention and treatment of disease. Mr Bragg sells finished lambs through the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative, and again he feels that it needs to be in a strong position to carry out the marketing function effectively while ensuring a fair deal for producers. But in this field too, many companies are attempting to weaken it by offering to buy direct from the farm.

Three late-born lambs were sold in October. All were fat class 3L, two graded U conformation and the other E. Two weighed 20kg and the other 22kg. After deductions including £2 a head for the co-op, they returned £55 and £58 a head respectively – a very useful premium over conventionally produced lamb, says Mr Bragg.