Scepticism rules on organic future
Organic conversion, grass
and forage research and
identification systems were
key issues at this years
Royal Welsh Show.
James Garner reports
CURRENT high premiums and attractive payments mean organic conversion is the subject of much interest in Wales, but experts at the show urged caution, while producers were sceptical.
An extra £1m to fund organic conversion grants, announced by the Welsh Office at the Royal Welsh show, could see interest rise. But experts expressed caution about more producers jumping on the organic bandwagon.
ADAS, which runs the Organic Conversion Information Service in Wales (OCIS), is worried that producers are attracted to conversion for the wrong reasons, said consultant Ken Stebbings.
"We are concerned that producers who do not make it conventionally may see organic farming as a solution. But the technical requirements are high under organic systems. If you run out of grass in summer then you cannot put a bag of fertiliser on. If your winter silage feed runs out, you cannot buy any in.
"Unless you take on the morals and ethics of organic farming, you are unlikely to succeed. There are some producers who are looking to do the bare minimum, which is the wrong attitude to make it work."
There has been a lot of interest in organic production in Wales. Since setting up its helpline in October 1996, ADAS has had 1600 enquiries from producers considering conversion. Of this, it is estimated that between 350 and 375 have converted or are in conversion.
Head of OCIS in Wales, Richard Collyer, said interest had risen even further recently, with more frequent enquiries since January last year. "But the number of calls has flattened out in the past couple of months as producers wait for organic aid scheme payments in Wales to be announced."
Premiums at current levels would not last as supply increases, despite potential market-place growth, admitted Marks and Spencer agricultural technologist Chris Brown.
"But there is growth in the market. We are putting more organic products on the shelves, such as organic sandwiches, and want to move to a range of prepared meals."
Marks and Spencer plans to stock a wider range of organic products which use lamb and beef. Increased supply, particularly for beef, would become a bigger issue, added Mr Brown.
Meat processor St Merryn Meat, which is looking at the organic market, believes supply and demand pressure will result in prices falling. "Be cautious, go into it with your eyes wide open. Discuss with your customer what price you may receive in two to three years time," advised St Merryns producer club manager John Dracup.
Welsh sheep producers at the show were overwhelmingly sceptical about organic production. John Davies of Penyrhul, Rhydaman, South Wales, who runs 500 Texel cross Mule ewes said there is not enough premium to compensate for lower inputs and production. "When supermarkets have enough supply they will cut prices. Anyway, I consider my product organic now, so why should I change it?"
Those sentiments were echoed by Gethin Harvard from Cwmblynich Farm, Sennybridge, Brecon. He runs 2500 Brecknock Hill Cheviots, and would not currently consider conversion.
"I would have to reduce stocking levels. The premium is appealing, but we need to establish how long will it last when organic production increases."
Another stockman at the show who felt premiums would be short-lived was Arthur George. He runs 700 Welsh ewes and 150 ewe lambs at Penybanc Farm, Llanidoes, Powys.
"I am not against organic production, but we have not gone into it yet. By the time we have converted, premiums will be little above the conventional price. The supermarkets say this is what they want, but look how they treat us now."
Lamb marketing goes on-line
FIVE Welsh lamb producers have joined forces to market lambs direct to consumers using the internet.
Last years poor prices, coupled with this seasons unexciting lamb price prompted the producers to group together and sell butchered, packaged and delivered lambs on-line.
A few of the producers involved have already diversified into the tourist trade, explained Aberdyfi-based Direct Welsh Lambs marketing and sales manager, Gwyn Evans.
"One of our group members has been selling lambs direct to visitors who have all complained that they cannot get lamb tasting the same at home."
The producers hope to process up to 2500 lambs in their first year using one of the group members butchers shops and a local abattoir at Tywyn, said Mr Evans.
Lambs will be sold in half and whole packs, costing £37 and £72, respectively, with an £8 next-day delivery charge. Two types of cuts will be available, quick lamb cuts and traditional joints. Details on www.welshlambdirect.co.uk
Welsh Blacks have judging change
WELSH black cattle are the first breed to change their national herd competition from sale and show results to performance recording.
As from the next year, Welsh Black herd competition sponsor Midland Bank has insisted that judging is to be based on Estimated Breeding Values.
According to Midlands agricultural manager for north Wales, Rod Williams, this will help the society move breeding goals forward. "We must produce cattle with good growth rates, meat to bone ratios and conformation, meeting the needs of the modern consumer," he said.
Signet beef specialist Ian Pritchard helped establish the competition criteria. It will be judged in three classes – the highest weighted average EBV of sires used in the herd, highest EBV average of dams in the herd, and heifer replacements with highest average EBVs.
The last class will demonstrate whether producers are improving the structure of their herds, said Mr Pritchard.
"The first prize, worth £300 and a trophy, will be awarded to one of the group winners or a herd that has more consistent scores across all categories," he said.
WSS project to study electronic ID
ELECTRONIC identification systems are being put to the test by a Welsh Sheep Strategy project.
Three different electronic tagging systems are being evaluated in a three-year trial. It aims to identify an effective and robust system for commercial sheep production, said MLC industry development manager in Wales, Gwyn Howells.
He said the three systems to be studied would include an electronic ear implant, a rumen bolus system and electronic ear tags.
Although the scheme was not part of the EU-wide IDEA project on electronic tagging, it would consider the same features, said Mr Howells.
"The project will also look at data capture. This could have a big role to play in livestock markets, where there is no feedback on livestock quality. This may enable live markets to give feedback to producers on stock and help improve carcass quality," he said.
uRACHELS Organic Dairy has launched a series of three-year student bursaries at the Univer-sity of Wales, Aberystwyth. The award, worth £1000 a year, will support students with research projects in organic agriculture at the Universitys Welsh Institute of Rural Studies. Announcing the move at the show, the firm said it hoped high-calibre candidates would be attracted by the award.
uTHE Farm Energy Centre and SWALEC, electricity providers in South Wales, have joined in an initiative to cut producers bills. The scheme, launched at the Royal Welsh Show, is offering high-pressure sodium lights at reduced prices to encourage producers to use them instead of traditional tungsten lights. According to FEC calculations, changing to high-pressure sodium lights will save producers up to £70 a year, because sodium lamps last 10 times longer and are six times cheaper to run than tungsten.
Gene mapping soon for clover?
CLOVER plant breeding could soon be using gene mapping technology, dramatically reducing the time to breed new varieties and improving quality.
Research at IGER is relating particular traits and the way clover is used by ruminants to DNA markers.
IGER Aberystwyth senior research scientist Michael Abberton, said new technology would allow tests to occur in greenhouses at a much earlier stage. "We will be able to test for specific DNA to see whether traits are present and have been passed on."
Hybrid crosses of red and white clover will also be developed using this technology. This will tackle areas of weakness, such as white clovers level of persistency in drier conditions and its tolerance to cold, he added.
FARM Assured Welsh Livestock has signed a partnership agreement with Assured British Meat.
Directors of the Welsh scheme had demanded that it should have exclusive operating rights west of Offas Dyke, and be able to continue promoting Welsh brands.
The agreement maintains much of the FAWL schemes independence while guaranteeing that it is fully compliant with the UK and European standards applied by ABM. It will also be able to continue using vets as inspectors.
Nick Archdale, who initiated farm assurance in Wales and still chairs the technical committee responsible for FAWL, said the partnership allowed the retention of the Welsh schemes identity and integrity.
Dwarf oat feed value
THE Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research is developing dwarf oat varieties to help raise their animal feed value.
Better standing ability means dwarf varieties may receive more nitrogen and therefore have higher protein values than their traditional taller counterparts, said plant pathologist Roger Clothier
The difference is a mean average for a taller variety such as Gerald of 9.5% protein, compared with an average of 12-13% protein for a dwarf naked oat variety such as Icon.
With concerns over genetically modified soya in animal diets, the long-term breeding aim is to develop oat varieties to replace soya oil, he said. *
Give market what it wants at right cost to earn best price
PRODUCING what the market wants as economically as possible is Powys flockmaster Steve Smiths common sense response to poor lamb prices.
His system of running 400 Beulah ewes on his hill land to breed replacements for the 360 Welsh Mules and 250 Mule lambs kept to produce prime lambs on kinder grazings had worked well for years. But when the cost of replacement Beulah ewes rose sharply, he bought shearling Scottish Blackface ewes instead.
"These cost £17 a head last year, about one-third of what I would have paid for Beulahs. The 100-head produced 32 sets of twins and there were just eight barren ewes. Unlike Beulahs, they did not have to be housed or receive supplementary feed other than silage.
"The lambing percentage may be a bit less and their wool is worth almost nothing, but put to Bluefaced Leicester tups they produced some excellent Scottish Mule ewe lambs and reasonable ram lambs for finishing," he said.
The real test will come when he can assess the average quality of lambs that result when they are bred to Texel sires. It will also be interesting to see how buyers react if some of the Scottish Mules with Texel cross male lambs at foot are sold.
"The Blackfaces are what I call proper sheep. They graze as a flock, they forage efficiently, are hardy and are excellent mothers."
When members of Montgomery-shire branch of the Farmers Union of Wales visited Pen Y Bryn, Castle Caereinion, Mr Smith said very late springs and poor autumn finishing conditions made the 160ha (395-acre) all-grass unit difficult to manage.
His system has evolved to make the most of land running up to 360m (1200ft) and the heavy clay lower fields. Potential buyers of Texel rams bred from the 250 ewes in his Penparc pedigree flock can also see how tups of similar breeding performed on commercial ewes.
He told visitors that no matter which breed of terminal sire they chose, quality must be the watchword. The ram had to do a good job on the type of commercial ewe kept. The pedigree breeder had a big responsibility but so too did the prime lamb producer.
"We have depended a lot on lamb exports, but in future only quality carcasses will be sure to sell. Buyers will want a meaty flat shoulder, wide loin and a wide behind with deep fleshy gigots. Mule ewes seem to be the commercial breed of the day, so users need rams that sire lambs out of them to meet specifications."
The difference between getting it wrong and getting it right, or between marketing E and U classification lambs rather than Rs and Os, could be 40p/kg deadweight.
Mr Smith believes some Texel breeders are obsessed with growth potential. Tups sold could sire lambs for rearing to heavy weights, but finishing them was difficult on many commercial units.
"We need much more emphasis on carcass quality potential. Prime lamb producers do not want big rangy difficult to finish lambs. They want good conformation, meaty sheep that produce quality carcasses at any weight." *