Research to evaluate the performance of organic sheep and beef production in hill and upland areas is described. The project combines an organic system study at three levels of stocking, a programme of replicated experiments and data collection on commercial organic farms. This includes direct comparison of organic and conventional systems at similar stocking rates. A comprehensive range of performance data is collected in a multi-disciplinary approach.
To encourage increased organic production, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) commissions a programme of research in the U.K. to provide information on the performance and profitability of organic systems. In general, this programme aims to:
At ADAS Redesdale, a research centre in the uplands of northern England, a research project was begun in 1991 to compare the relative performance of organic and conventional farming. Since then the research has evolved to include:
The unit consists of 500 hectares of hill and upland supporting 700 breeding ewes (in four flocks) and 35 suckler cows.
At the start of the experiment two directly comparable sub-units were formed, from one discrete area ('heft') and the sheep flock it supported. Recognizing the diversity of grazing type on hill pasture, a combination of aerial survey and fixed quadrate analysis was used to assess botanical composition. The area was then split to form two areas of similar stock carrying capacity, supporting two comparable sub-flocks, one managed organically and the other conventionally. Original stocking rates have been maintained since conversion. Comprehensive data are collected on the physical performance of grassland and livestock, animal health and financial performance. This core comparison allows the relative performance or organic and conventional production to be modelled from recorded data. Changes in botanical composition of three pasture types on the unit is being monitored by Newcastle University, referring changes in vegetation cover to National Vegetation Classification (NVC).
Two further flocks were converted to organic production but stocking rates were reduced by 15 and 25 percent, respectively. This provides information on the interaction of stocking rate with individual animal performance, changes in botanical composition and overall profitability.
Specific experiments have been set up to evaluate technical issues and potential constraints to sustainable organic production, addressing topics such as animal nutrition, controlling internal parasites, grassland pests and maintenance of soil fertility.
Ten commercial farms were recruited to supply additional data, including full farm costings. These broaden the study, particularly of economic performance, aid the interpretation of results from the main project and provide an insight into the performance and problems of commercial organic production. Increasingly, these are being used as sites for further specific investigations e.g. of mineral/trace element status in organic livestock. Economic data are incorporated by the Welsh Institute of Rural Studies (WIRS) into wider economic analysis of organic farming systems.
In a broad outline, this experiment shares a similar format to MAFF funded work on stockless arable systems at ADAS Terrington (1). The research combines the important dimension of direct, overall comparison of organic and conventional systems, with specific investigations into individual aspects of organic production. The use of a multi-disciplinary approach and a combination of research techniques and analysis, allow for the better understanding of the effects of conversion to organic production. One potential limitation is the possibility of results being too site-specific. However, the use of a range of stocking rates and the addition of data from commercial farms, significantly broadens the scope of the study. Given the objective to increase conversion to organic farming, the development of a successful organic 'whole farm' system provides a powerful tool for demonstration and increased credibility with conventional producers.
The involvement of commercial producers maintains an important link to the industry. However, there is potential for results to be heavily influenced by farm type and structure, depending on the pool available. In addition, the economic performance of individual farms may be affected by factors such as season, outbreak of disease and market availability. Within the current project, there was some difficulty at first in recruiting sufficient cooperating producers, due to the scarcity of organic farms in upland areas. In recent years, this situation has been much improved as the number of converting farms has increased.
The research is planned to continue at least until 2001 both on the unit and linked farm survey, to evaluate the longer-term sustainability of organic production and to reduce the effect of season and other potential sources of variation.
There is growing interest in organic farming against conventional hill and upland producers in the U.K., many of whom are financially hard-pressed at the current time. Organic production is particularly relevant given the importance of agri-environmental policy in these areas. A valuable resource has been created for the evaluation of organic farming in the hills and uplands (2). The unit could provide opportunities for further collaborative research in organic methods of production.
Cormak, W.F. (1997): Testing the sustainability of a stockless arable rotation on a fertile soil in Eastern England. Resource use in organic farming. Proceedings of the third ENOF Workshop, Ancona, 5-6 June 1997.
Keatinge, R. (1997): Organic hill farming - does it pay? New Farmer and Grower, 55: 24-25 pp.
(MAFF funding for this work is gratefully acknowledged)