How a dairy made a two-year transition to organic farming

This year marked a turning point for the Lywood family as they sold their first litres of organic milk from Marshalls Farm in West Sussex, following a two-year conversion period.

For Kate Lywood, her husband, Jeremy Way, and father, Roger, it marked both an end and a beginning: the conversion period had concluded, and the organic milk price kicked in – 38.23p/litre compared to 27.72p/litre the previous June. 

But for the family, organic farming was never about the prize of a higher milk price.

See also: How and why Shropshire beef farmer is converting to organic

“It allows us to look after the farm in the way we want to, takes the pressure off the cows, with a lower stocking rate, and provides a good working environment for our staff,” she says.

Several factors made the family consider organic farming as an alternative: Jeremy, who was CEO of an education project, decided to return to the farm and immediately found a love for all things soil and plant health. He also came with a “business brain’’, she adds.

Farm facts

  • 384ha (859 acres) farmed
  • Mixed breeds of Friesian, Norwegian Red and Jersey-crosses
  • Producing 5,800 litres at 4.36% butterfat and 3.54% protein
  • Spring block-calving over 10 weeks from February to mid-April
  • By 2022 there will be about 336 cows in the herd

At the same time, their milk buyer, Arla, was encouraging members to convert to organic, offering the organic milk price for the final six months of conversion once the herd was being fed organically.

“When we thought about the drivers of our business – cow health, soil health, profitability – we started to dabble with the idea of organic,” says Mrs Lywood. They decided to go into organic conversion in June 2019.

Making the switch – requirements

The two-year conversion period was difficult because fixed costs remained similar, but they had to reduce the stocking rate from 2.5 cows a hectare to 1.6 cows.

It also coincided with two very dry springs and summers in West Sussex ­– at one point, the grazing rotation had to be paused for a prolonged period and the cows were fed silage on a stand-off pad.

“The financial pain of conversion is real, but that is the trade-off when developing something that won’t show results immediately,” concedes Mrs Lywood.

Another requirement before becoming organic was that they reduced their annual fertiliser use from 200kg/ha of nitrogen to zero.

To achieve this, and cope with the changing weather patterns, the business has had to become better at growing grass and forage crops.

This year, a small amount of drought-tolerant lucerne has been established. Reseeding is being guided by soil sampling.

They also have a strong focus on selecting grass varieties that will suit their farm and are now trying herbal mixes.

They are not permitted to use chemicals to control pests or diseases either.

The trickiest pests to overcome without chemical control have been flea beetle and cabbage white butterfly in brassica crops and leatherjackets in grass reseeds.

“We had one reseed where you could practically draw a line in the field where there had been a leatherjacket infestation, but as soon as the conditions allowed, we drilled again and it worked,” explains Mrs Lywood.

The Lywoods were making good progress at reducing antibiotics use at drying off, with 95% of the herd treated with teat sealant only before the switch to organic. But now 100% of the herd recieves teat sealant only.

Furthermore, vet and medicine use has been reduced by weighing cattle more regularly and using faecal egg counts to inform worming decisions.

How they reduced reliance on imported feed

Reseeding and growing high-protein crops are priorities to reduce organic concentrate feed inputs costing up to £405/t.

Currently, 1.2t of concentrates a cow a year is fed, with milk production averaging 5,800 litres a cow a year, back from 6,500 litres when they were conventional.

But the aim is to reduce concentrate feeding to 1t a cow a year, while maintaining yields by feeding more home-grown protein.

This will include improving silage and grass quality by carrying out more reseeding and fine-tuning their grazing management.

Carbon reduction

Arla has recently announced tough new standards for its organic farmers.

Arla organic farmers will be expected to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions/kg of milk by 30% by 2028 – two years before Arla’s wider dairy target of 2030.

Farmers are expected to have begun putting solutions in place to meet the 100% renewable energy requirement by January 2022.

But Mrs Lywood is unphased by the changes. She says:

“Arla are asking more of their organic members now, but across the board, whether they are organic or non-organic, I believe all British farmers will have to adhere to higher standards set by their milk buyer to meet climate targets. As farmers, we have to work that into our business model.”

Although the business is receiving a higher milk price, production costs are also higher organically, but organic farming is the direction they believe in for their business.

“It will take three years from full conversion until we are completely operating without an overdraft, but it is nice to look at the financial forecast and see ourselves coming out of the pain of two years of conversion,’’ says Mrs Lywood.

Organic Farmers and Growers’ advice on switching from conventional to organic

  • Are the farm and system suited for farming organically? An organic dairy enterprise will need sufficient area to not exceed 1.5-1.7 livestock units/ha
  • Speak to milk buyers and ensure that an organic contract will be available at the end of the conversion period
  • Consider the specifics of managing the herd and the timings of the conversion. For instance, look at timings for forage production to ensure there is sufficient organic forage – it doesn’t make sense to start a conversion in August if forage is cut in June, as it will still be in conversion when the herd starts producing organic milk
  • Consider how a reduction in the reliance on anthelmintics and antibiotics will impact herd health, as prophylactic treatments, such as blanket dry cow therapy, are not permitted in organic dairying. The conversion allows things to settle into what is required of organic and allows a reduction in the use of these products