‘If you cut out chemicals, bespoke rotation can really maximise cereal productivity’

‘If you cut out chemicals, bespoke rotation can really maximise cereal productivity’

Evan Delaney switched his mixed farm to organic production because he “was not really happy using the volume of chemicals recommended in conventional grain production”.

“It just didn’t sit well with me and that is why I started to look more seriously at organic farming,” says Evan, who farms 85 hectares (210ac) of tillage, grassland and livestock in Red City, Fethard, Co Tipperary.

He converted with the Irish Organic Association in January 2016.

“I felt it would be a healthier way to produce grain. I grew cereals for the previous two years before I entered organics with no chemicals, so I knew it could be done and done well.”

Evan had sucklers before he went organic, but he has since switched to finishing animals. He currently has 50 cattle, mainly continental breeds that are finished over the winter months.

“I like Charolais and Limousin mainly because I was used to them and they kill out bigger,” he says.

“I know a lot of organic farmers are using breeds that finish mainly off grass, but I prefer to maximise my lands to grow cereals, and winter finishing cattle suits my system.

“Approximately 90pc of my land is under cereals, with the rest in grassland, so it needs to be managed accordingly.”

Evan grows oats, wheat, barley and beans. He uses a wide range of cover crops and herbal leys to assist with the extension of his rotation and to manage weeds and fertility.

“The rotation I have developed is essentially two years of oats, followed by barley, beans and then wheat before it is placed back into a fertility building phase,” he says.

“The oats are a profitable crop and naturally comprise almost 60pc of the tillage land. In yield terms I average 2.3t/ac of oats.

“The other crops are essential to have diversity in the rotation and supply raw ingredients for my meal production business.

“The diverse cropping assists in reducing weeds, and pest and disease populations.

“Initially when you convert to organic cereal growing, it is tricky to get your head around the fact that you can’t have all of your land in continual production, but a bespoke rotation can really maximise productivity.”

Like many organic farmers, Evan incorporates red clover into his silage area.

“As I am not so heavily stocked, I don’t have big requirements for silage so usually I take one cut from the red clover herbal leys in May and then a second cut that I mulch back into the ground,” he says.

“I allow it to grow all summer and it provides a fantastic habitat for birds, bees and insects—you just have to walk into the fields and it is alive with biodiversity.

“The fact that you don’t use synthetic herbicides and insecticides allows biodiversity to flourish, which is one of the main benefits of organic farming.

“To enhance that even further I have started to develop wildlife refuges by sowing corridors of flowers and herbs mainly around the headlands of the farm.

“I have always been interested in nature so being able to develop the existing farm ecosystems has been very fulfilling on a personal level.”

Around 70pc of the oats are sold to Flahavans; additional oats, cereals and beans are used to manufacture an organic animal feed that Evan sells to organic farmers.

“There is a need to increase Irish organic protein supplies so I grow beans for protein in my ration,” he says.

“The beans worked out well in 2021, with yields of 2.5 t/ac. I under-sow the beans with clover as once the beans lose their leaves, weed management can be problematic. Under-sowing works well and does not cause any issues when harvesting.

“Chocolate spot is manageable—when I was growing beans conventionally, I used fungicides which were not hugely effective, so growing them organically is not really any different.

“With regards to barley and wheat, I grow a tall winter variety which has a good ability to suppress weeds. In the future I would like to grow more crops for human consumption as there is growing demand for them.”

“I shallow plough about 5-6ins as min-till is difficult in organic farming without the use of glyphosate to fall back on,” Evan says.

“Farmyard manure is his preferred material to use on the arable land.

“It is a great slow-release fertiliser and works wonders on the soil microbiology,” he explains.

“I use slurry on the grassland when required. I add some dairy sludge to the farmyard manure heap during the composting process before incorporation.

“Once crops are harvested, I incorporate the farmyard manure with some lime.

“The crops are sprayed a couple of times during the growing season with home-brewed biostimulants to help with the health of the plants.

“I was disappointed to learn recently that I did not get into the pilot Soil Sampling Programme as it would have been interesting to compare organically managed soils to conventional soils.”

“Having access to my own machinery is very useful as I can till, sow and harvest my own crops exactly when conditions allow, which makes organic tillage more manageable,” he says.

“As a contractor going to other farms, people are genuinely interested in organic farming, but from my experience people are slow to convert.

“The rising prices of inputs like fertiliser will no doubt mean that farmers will look more seriously at organic farming.

“One piece of advice I would give people is that they must be interested in organics as a farming system. You have to tolerate some level of weeds, and forward planning is critical, also finding markets for your product.

“That said the benefits of working the soil in a more sustainable manner are huge not only for individual farms but society as a whole, and we need to farm with a more collective mind.

“The organic market is in its infancy here in Ireland and resources should be allocated to develop it to its full potential.”

Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Association, grace.maher@irishoa.ie

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