Organic switch on hills not straightforward job
By Robert Davies
EXPERIENCE at ADAS Pwllpeiran shows that switching to organic production on extensively managed hill farms is not as straight-forward as many people believe.
The research centre at Cwmystwyth in Dyfed created its 111.5ha (275 acre) organic farmlet in 1993. It gained full certification in May 1995 and carries 161 Apr lambing Hardy Speckle Face ewes, 10 Welsh Black cows, two replacement heifers and nine calves.
From the outset, it aimed for a stocking rate of 60% of the conventionally farmed parts of the 1120ha (2770 acre) holding and to provide 95% of the feed needed.
ADAS organic specialist David Frost says hill producers see strong consumer demand for organic products and conversions grants as attractive incentives to change. But organic farming has developed primarily in the lowlands and on mixed farms.
"The system is not designed for a farm without cattle, which are needed to supply manure, to reduce worm burdens and to manage unimproved grazings," he warns.
"In the uplands the absence of arable breaks, difficulty growing legumes, winter fodder shortage and control of weeds are not adequately covered by certifying bodies standards.
"Sprays for bracken, weed wipers and all herbicides are banned and most permitted methods of weed control assume fields are going to be cultivated, ploughed and cropped in rotation. But in the all-grass situation cutting and management are the only real means of control," says Mr Frost.
At Pwllpeiran close sheep grazing of wet improved grassland encourages rush infestation, he adds. "Sheep avoid grazing mature rushes and are generally less effective at containing them than cattle. Cutting repeatedly during the grazing season, using a flail, is effective but expensive. Combinations of cutting and grazing are more effective than either cutting once or grazing alone."
As the use of inorganic fertiliser is prohibited, nitrogen fixation by clover is essential, explains Mr Frost. But managing grass clover swards is not easy under hill conditions. Grazing too long in autumn to reduce demand for winter fodder means clover plants are smaller in spring. They start growing later and cannot compete with grasses in the sward.
Clover will also crash every five to seven years as tap rooted parent plants die, leaving the small clover plants previously connected to them by stolons. As these satellite plants have little root structure they are unable to cope with stressful conditions.
"We need a sward of 20 to 25% clover, but have seen it crash to less than 10%. It does recover slowly, partly through self-seeding, but until it does forage can be in short supply. New seed can be sown, but organic clover seed is expensive and reseeding is banned under some agri-environment schemes."
To claim enhanced environmental payments, all improved fields included in Pwllpeirans organic unit were entered into reversion to hay meadow management agreements. No reseeding or overseeding with clover can, therefore, take place.
The team running Pwllpeirans organic unit agrees that it is impossible to maintain the stocking rate and produce finished cattle and sheep. Last year lambs sold for £1.40/kg, or about £30/head as stores. Store cattle sold for a 60p/kg bonus.
This season stock will be finished on organically certified lowland owned by the National Botanic Gardens of Wales. Mr Frost believes organic hill producers must forge links with lowland units to survive. But he remains convinced that organic hill farming has a future.
"Consumer demand is growing and attractive premiums will be around for some time. But we have to get pasture management and marketing right, work with lowland farms and make the most of agri-environment schemes." *
• Less experience on hills.
• Forage is clover dependent.
• Marketing plan needed.
Managing clover in swards on hill farms is difficult – clover content can crash every five to seven years, says ADASs David Frost.