Organics demands a full commitment
By Wendy Owen
North east correspondent
BEEF producers considering organic conversion must be fully committed to the principles it involves because in future there may be little difference in profit compared with conventional systems.
That was the message from ADAS head of farming, Neil Pickard, when he gave an update on the organisations North Yorks-based High Mowthorpe research farms Stonechair organic project last week.
"Organic beef production is a long term commitment where success depends on future prices which cannot be guaranteed.
"The cost of producing organic beef is about 20% higher than for conventional beef and the premium is 40% greater. But as more producers convert, premiums could level at about 20% more than conventional beef. That would mean profits from both systems would be about the same," said Mr Pickard.
The reduction in stocking rates required by most farms in organic conversion was often seen as a chance to cut labour. But that did not always prove to be the case, he added.
"There may be less physical work for producers reducing livestock numbers, but certification schemes require much more record keeping and paperwork."
Launched last year, the Stonechair project is run in collaboration with Marks and Spencer with the aim of producing financial results and advice to assist producers considering or undergoing organic conversion.
It involves 100ha (250 acres) of mixed farmland at High Mowthorpe and a 25-cow organic suckler herd, which produces three-quarter bred Limousin calves. The land will receive full organic status this autumn and first organic beef cattle are due to be sold in spring 2003 at 24 months old.
Mr Pickard compared results from the organic herd with results from the farms conventional herd.
The conventional herd received few vet treatments and no concentrate feeding, so cost comparisons between the two systems showed similar results. The only difference was in more expensive mineral supplements needed for organic calves and £150 spent on preventative homeopathic treatments.
Because the organic land had no fertiliser applied and grazing was limited, calf weights were slightly lower. Conventional calves averaged 179kg at weaning and those from the organic system, 163kg.
"But the organic conversion aid more than compensated for this weight differential, as well as the extra expense of keeping the herd organically. And once conversion support payments cease, there will be a price premium for the meat. Deadweight organic beef prices are about 70p/kg higher than conventional returns, but that could change in future," said Mr Pickard.
As organic beef systems were often set up on small farms, direct marketing may seem an attractive way of marketing meat. But the whole animal must be sold at a premium price to justify conversion, he warned. *
• Production cost 20% higher.
• Premium 40% higher.
• Future premium may fall.