Digging into organic dairy farming

The benefits of organic farming.

A spade stands upright on the slope of a hillside farm in Laragh. It’s lodged in the ground so Fergal Rudden can demonstrate a simple test.

To get to the field, Fergal guides us past the parlour housing his impressive new robotic milking system. He’s happy with the investment, particularly as it’s saved him lots of time that’s in short supply. He is a father of two - Sophie (4), Donncha (2) - soon to be three with wife Cara due next month. He also relies on the data provided to keep on top of any potential health issues, so he can ‘nip it in the bud’ with homeopathic remedies.

In the grand scheme of things however he doesn’t view the robot as central to his enterprise. What’s central is in the fields and beneath the spade.

We find the remnants of a barely detectable cow pat.

“Cows are getting a bad rep at the minute,” he begins, hinting that the sustainability debate is more nuanced than simply blaming all cattle for Ireland’s dismal carbon emissions record. We examine the worm castings visible between clumps of grass.

“This is a dung pat that’s been totally reabsorbed back into the ground, creating healthy soil. That’s all aerated, it’s all neutral pH, the worms have done their job, and that’s going to grow loads of grass,” he predicts. He plants the spade in to lift a sod.

“See they’re all just below the surface,” Fergal says of the worms forming bridges as he teases clumps of earth apart. In a matter of seconds of rooting in that small patch we see a dozen or so worms. Fergal views this as an indicator of soil health.

“They’re all feeding on the nutrients the cow left behind her, and that’s all creating loads of healthy soil,” he says noting that far from being the problem, livestock are an essential factor in maintaining soil health in a balanced system.

Fergal began the farm’s transition to organic farming in 2019 and this is the first year it is certified as organic.

“When I started getting interested in organics I would have started looking and I wouldn’t have found as many worms as that when I took the spade out,” he says. He also notes that dung wouldn’t have been reabsorbed as swiftly under his previous, conventional style of farming.

Fergal estimates that 99% of his milk goes to the Little Milk Company, who use it to make organic cheese in Cork. He has also recently begun supplying bottled organic raw milk to The Local Green Box Cavan. This is where customers order their shopping from a range of local producers and a box is made up and supplied once a week.

“There are people who would maintain digestion is much easier on raw milk than pasteurised milk. There’s a lot of enzymes in raw milk that get damaged in pasteurising, and as far as I know it has a full array of minerals and vitamins that you can’t get in any other food.”

Marching on through the fields to meet his herd - 99 jersey and holstein cross in total - it’s remarkable how few docks populate his fields.

“Dock beetles do a great job for me,” he enthuses and shows an Instagram photo he took of the skeletal remains of what was once a dock leaf.

“When they are breeding, they absolutely mill through the docks and that gives us a certain amount of control because if a dock is not actively growing then it cannot proliferate. You are never going to get rid of them completely – I don’t think we should even be looking for that, because the docks contribute to soil health overall in terms of breaking up soil compaction.”

Fergal employs an ‘A, B, C system’ where every whole block is divided into three and the cattle get eight hours to graze in each. To move to a new block to access fresh grass they must pass through the milking robot.

“They won’t be back in here tomorrow. They have only been in here for eight hours – they get one bite, and we’re not over grazing,” he says. Even in mid-season, they would not return to a block for another three to three and a half weeks. It’s a system that’s working for Fergal.

“This year was a very good year for growing grass and I have probably grown about 10 tonnes of dry matter per hectare, which, without any nitrogen whatsoever or any inputs, I think, is pretty good.”

He suspects pressure on the authorities will see a greater emphasis placed on this organic approach. The Farm to Fork strategy sets a target of 25% of all farmland being organic. Ireland currently lags behind the rest of Europe at around 2%.

“There’s probably not enough being put into organics in terms of research and advisory, in my opinion,” Fergal says. He also suspects a greater demand will come from farmers seeking to enter the organic sector.

“With all the conversations about the price of fertiliser next year, a lot of people will start looking at organic farming seriously,” he predicts. Fergal believes they will find the change worth it: “If you have low input costs and you can get some level of an organic premium then you are going to be profitable.”