Organic farming: challenges for farmers and feed suppliers

Published on: 1/8/2008
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Courtesy of the 41st Annual University of Nottingham Feed Conference

Our thanks to the author and Conference Organisers, a Committee consisting of both University and Industry colleagues.

The full paper will appear in the Conference Proceedings ('Recent Advances in Animal Nutrition - 2007', edited by Phil Garnsworthy and Julian Wiseman) published by Nottingham University Press in the autumn of 2007

Organic agriculture has shown rapid growth and dynamic developments in recent years throughout Europe. This success is not only related to plant products but encloses to a high degree organic products of animal origin.

Correspondingly, there is an increasing demand for organic feedstuffs to meet the requirements of organic farm animals. While in conventional production increasing demands for nutrients are covered mainly by increased importation of feedstuffs from outside the farm, the possibilities for such imports of external resources into the organic farm system are limited.

High nutrient imports conflict with a leading idea of organic farming which is to establish a nearly complete nutrient cycle within a farm system or through a cooperation with different types of farms using local resources.

An organic farm is by definition a low-input and land based system, avoiding were possible the use of external inputs, and with the priority to produce products of high quality rather than maximizing production. Thus, organic and conventional production are characterised by different system approaches with different objectives, management priorities, and framework conditions.

Consequently, general conclusions derived from research under the framework of conventional production do not have the same relevance and validity when transferred to the organic production system and vice versa.

Evaluating the need for external feed inputs cannot be based on the nutrient requirements of the livestock alone, but has to take into account the whole system including factors outside the farm gate, such as market conditions and consumer expectations.

According to the EU Regulation (EEC/834/2007) on organic farming, the derogation for the use of conventional feed will be phased out and organic systems have to move towards the use of 100% organic feed stuffs by December 2011.

While the removal of conventional feed is essential for the integrity and future development of organic livestock production, both organic farmers (particularly pig and poultry farmers) and the feed milling sector are currently faced with a number of key issues in terms of the macro-nutrients in organic feed.

These issues have been identified through studies into the possibilities and limitations of protein supply in organic poultry and pig production (EU-project: EC 2092/91 - Revision), and through discussions with the organic feed industry. Key issues include balance of supply and demand, quality of supply and shortages in the supply of organic feed and suggestions for overcoming them.

As part of a range of farm management options producers faced with protein shortages and trying to reduce protein demands in organic pig and poultry diets could consider using slow growing strains and breeds, compensatory growth and substituting roughage for concentrate in the diets where possible.

Due to the large variation in the availability of feed of high quality, feed intake, digestibility of nutrients, level of performance and utilization of nutrients between farms there is a need to develop feeding strategies that are closely related to the farm specific situation.

To prevent any harm to the animals that might be caused by unbalanced feed rations, the implementation of an animal health plan, including the requirement to analyse and calculate feed rations and monitor availability of home-grown feed and other feed back mechanisms should be part of each management system on an organic livestock farms and should also be a requirement of the EU-Regulation.

It can be concluded that due to the limited availability of high quality feed organic farms in general cannot compete with conventional farms with respect to production costs and efficiency in the use of nutrients on the level of the farm animals. Despite a lower productivity, organic farms have the potential to be more efficient in the use of nutrients on the farm level because of the markedly lower nutrient inputs.

In general, reduced nutrient inputs go along with reduced nutrient outputs providing a clear benefit with respect to an environmentally friendly production. In the near future both organic and conventional farms will have to match the prescription of the EU-Directive (EEC/676/1991) with respect to a progressive decrease in the maximum nutrient surplus allowed in relation to the total nutrient balance of a farm.

While most of the organic farms already fulfil these demands, conventional farms, especially those specialised on pig and poultry production still produce nutrient losses that are far above the future thresholds. Hence, there are different environmental loads at the subsystem and total system levels. Farmers, feed millers and animal nutritionists should be aware of these differences and ought to take responsibility for the total system by striving for a high efficiency in the use of nutrients within the total system.

In order to compensate for the higher production costs, organic farmers have to focus primarily on a quality oriented production, including a high eating quality of products of animals’ origin and a high status of animal health and environmentally friendly production, to meet the expectations of consumers and correspond to their willingness to pay premium prices for organic products.

With respect to the future demands of livestock production, to achieve an animal- and environment-compatible production it can be argued that organic agriculture anticipates what will be a challenge in the next years also for conventional production.

Authors: A. Sundrum1, P. Nicholas2 and S. Padel2
1 Department of Animal Nutrition and Animal Health, Faculty of Organic Agricultural Sciences, University of Kassel, Nordbahnhofstr. 1a, D-37213 Witzenhausen, Germany.
2 Institute of Rural Sciences, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, SY23 3AL
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