Could conversion to organic
production be the strategic
decision to drive returns
up on your farm?
Brian Lovelidge asks a
Kent farm manager with
both organic and
conventional cropping what
his hopes for the sector are
MARGINS to match top conventional wheat crops is what one grower reckons he will get from turning part of the land he manages organic. But unless you have some of the best land in the country that cannot be achieved without livestock, he warns.
Chris Reynolds manages 750ha (1850 acres) in Kent. Three years ago, following a change in ownership, he started converting 385ha (950 acres) of that to organic production.
"We converted for two reasons – theres a good market for organic products and I have increasing reservations about pesticides although I still use them on the other two farms I manage."
About 121ha (300 acres) of the farm, which straddles the North Downs, is rough grazing and permanent pasture. The remaining 223ha (550 acres) is or will be in a rotation of three-year red clover/grass ley or one-year vetch; cereals (triticale, oats or wheat), and beans or peas.
All the arable crops are for seed, sold to the organic seed group based at Elm Farm Research Centre, Newbury, Berks. Leys are conserved and grazed and the September-sown vetch is shallowly disced the following July to build fertility ready for an October sown cereal.
Conversion is being done in stages with most of the leys already organic and the first organic arable crop – 12.5ha (31 acres) of Meli spring beans – due to be combined this year. Mr Reynolds expects it to yield about 3t/ha (1.2t/acre), which when sold at about £200/t plus a £20-£30/t seed premium will give a gross margin of over £800/ha (£323/acre).
In conversion crops of triticale have proved the yield potential for cereals. The variety Ego, which preceded the beans, yielded 5.9t/ha (2.3t/acre) off the light flinty loam field and went for seed at £130/t. Higher prices once fully organic are anticipated (see panel).
This seasons 16.2ha (40 acre) conversion crop of Tricolor triticale should match last years yield, says Mr Reynolds. Drilled at 185kg/ha in October and February, a pass with a 12m Opico weeder in early April took out half the weeds, mainly charlock, and none of the survivors were strong enough to show above the crop.
"You need competitive crops to help control weeds and triticale is marvellous in that respect. So are the oats that well also be growing," says Mr Reynolds.
Assuming yield is up to expectations and a price of £130/t, gross margin will be £933/ha (£378/acre).
So far pest and disease problems have been minimal. "Disease is not the threat people envisage because the crops are not being pushed very hard," says Mr Reynolds.
A small amount of bean aphid damage was soon controlled by beneficial insects, notably ladybirds and parasitoid wasps and the crop has now podded well.
With mostly grade 3 land on the farm, investing in a suckler herd of South Devons to utilise the leys between crops and build fertility has been essential. Conversion aid of £450/ha (£182/acre) over 5 years has helped with this.
"I know of people who have tried stockless organic systems on grade 3 land and they had to pull out due to loss of fertility. Its different on ADAS Terringtons grade 1 silt. You need grade 1 or the top end of grade 2 land to succeed," he says.
That is echoed by Phil Stocker, the Soil Associations head of agriculture. Organic stockless rotations need specialist knowledge to succeed and high quality soil, ruling the system out for most growers, he says.
"There are plenty of outlets for organic arable crops and a great demand for them thats likely to remain unsatisfied for some time. Thats why we still have to import 70-80% of our requirement. Due to the shortage of home-produced crops theres a lot of scope for expansion without much downward pressure on prices."
Mr Reynolds believes that will ensure profits from the organic farm at least match the conventional land for the foreseeable future. "Im convinced that with our system we will be able to easily compete on gross margins with 9 to 10t/ha or more of wheat." *
Organic storage book
Cleaning and caring for organic grain in store is as important, if not more so, than for conventional crops, says the Soil Associations Phil Stocker. Chapter and verse on the subject will be found in a new technical guide – Grain Storage on Organic Farms – produced by the association with CSL support, available shortly from the association for £4.
Variable costs* ha acre
Seed (250kg/ha) £97 £39
Yield (estimated) 3t 1.2t
Sale value (est @ £220/t) £660 £267
Area payment £260 £105
Ouput £920 £372
Gross margin £823 £333
* One pass with 12m Opico weeder and one day of two men hand-weeding docks not included.
Milling wheat £200-£220
Feed wheat £190-£200
Barley and oats £170
Peas and beans for animal feed £180-£200.
* Soil Association farmgate price indications for new season organic produce. Those intending to grow specialist crops for human consumption, such as durum wheat or rye, are advised to get contracts before sowing.
• Organic arable market buoyant.
• Livestock needed on all but best land.
• Competitive crops aid weed control.
• Competes with 10t/ha wheat?
Triticales height helps suppress weeds in an organic rotation, says conventional and organic farm manager Chris Reynolds. Margins from his first fully organic crop – Meli beans (inset) – should more than match top wheat.