Organic beef production

To produce and market organic beef cattle, the farm must be registered with an organic control body and the production system adopted must meet the organic standards specified by that body. Each control body has its own detailed set of standards and it is important to ensure that the system adopted complies with the requirements of the organic body with which you choose to register. Individual control body standards may differ slightly from the EU Organic Standard and from each other. Some of the key aspects of production are given below.

Sources of stock

Existing stock

When a farm is converted to organic production, the existing livestock can be retained but can never be sold as organic. However, the progeny of cows can be sold as organic following the required conversion period for both land and stock.

Cows must be managed organically for at least 12 weeks before calving, to enable the calves to be sold as organic. Breeds must be suitable for local conditions.


Producers are encouraged to breed their own replacements or to buy from other organic farms. However, up to 10 percent of the breeding herd can be replaced each year, from conventional herds, by heifers which have not produced a calf and which satisfy a number of criteria.


Calves from organic dairy herds can be reared for organic beef production, provided the production system complies with organic standards throughout.

If a calf dies, a replacement calf may be purchased and fostered on. If the calf comes from a conventional (nonorganic) herd, it may not be sold for organic meat. Non-organic heifer calves may be used as replacements.


Conventional store cattle may not be finished as organic. Organic store cattle purchased from other organic farms can be finished organically, but are often in short supply.

As some parts of the country are suited for suckled calf production and other areas more suited for finishing cattle, weaned suckled calves can be sold from organic rearing to finishing units.


Stock bulls can be purchased from conventional farms provided they are subsequently managed to organic standards. Hired bulls can be used provided they are managed organically while they are on the farm. The use of AI is permitted.

Non-organic stock

Organic and non-organic stock of the same species may not be present on the same holding. However, conventional stock of another species may graze organic pasture for up to 120 days each year. This requires permission from the control body.

Starting conversion

Conversion planning is a very important aspect of progressing from conventional to organic production. In some cases the whole farm will be converted in one block. In others the conversion may be phased over a number of years, which requires close attention to detail to ensure that cattle sold will achieve organic status at the earliest possible date.

Time scale for conversion

It normally takes two years to convert the land to organic status. The cows must then be managed organically for at least 12 weeks before calving to produce organic calves.

Simultaneous conversion

Where the complete farm is converted together with the stock, the conversion period can be reduced to 24 months and this process is known as simultaneous conversion.

Where simultaneous conversion is used, calves born at least 12 weeks after the start of the conversion period, and which have been managed to organic standards, can be sold as organic after the completion of the two-year land conversion period.

This applies to calves born from existing breeding cows where the stock are fed mainly with products from the farm. Stock management must meet all of the organic standards from the outset.

Selling and buying stock

Farm to farm trading will become a necessary part of marketing stock, as few sales of organic stock exist. The purchase of pedigree stock and rare breeds through livestock marts is permitted.

Finished stock should be sold through an outlet approved by an organic certification body to allow the meat to be sold as organic and to avail of premium prices. Marketing should always be considered before starting production.


From the start of conversion, all feedstuffs used on the farm must be produced and certified to organic standards.

Maximum use should be made of grazing, and all of the feed required should ideally be produced on the farm.

At least 60 percent of the feed should be obtained from the farm or from other linked organic farms.

Up to 30 percent of the feed may come from in-conversion sources. Where it is produced on the holding on which it will be used up to 60 percent of the feed may be in-conversion. The balance of the ration should meet full organic standards.


Both the pasture grazed and the forage conserved for winter feed will normally be produced on the organic farm itself. At least 60 percent of the diet must come from organic forage.


Where home produced organic cereals are available, these will form the basis of the concentrate ration. Organic concentrates can be purchased, though are scarce and/or expensive in Northern Ireland.

As well as being organically grown, purchased feed must further criteria, including freedom from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and solvent extraction.


Mineral supplementation is only permitted where trace element requirements cannot be met by the practices of organic husbandry. Proof of need, and permission to use them is required by control bodies.


Establishment and management of cloverbased swards are crucial to the success of organic beef farms. Clover is required to sustain good levels of productivity as it is the main source of nitrogen on the farm.

Red clover, sown with Italian or hybrid ryegrass, can be used to produce bulky silage crops. Molasses, bacterial inoculants and enzyme additives may be used as silage additives.

Note that molasses used as a silage additive (or fed) must be organic itself.

Maintaining soil fertility depends on appropriate rotations and the careful allocation of recycled manures and slurry. Artificial fertilisers are not permitted, but lime and some ‘natural’ sources of nutrients can be used (permission sometimes required).

Some land will not be suitable for ploughing or sward improvement. Permanent pasture and rough grazing will be important in these situations.

Livestock manures

Manure may be brought in from other organic farms. The total quantity of nitrogen applied on the farm may not exceed 170 KGN/ha/year (including that produced by the stock on the farm). This is equivalent to a stocking rate of almost 2 LU/ha. The maximum applied to any one area should not exceed 250 KGN/ha/year.

Permission may be sought to use manure produced on conventional farms. However, the animals from which it is produced must be kept in extensive husbandry systems that satisfy the organic control body, and the rations fed to the stock must be free from GMOs.

Whilst it is unlikely that there will be surplus manure or slurry on an organic beef farm any manure or slurry leaving the farm must only go to other organic farms.


Note that housing space requirements can differ between control bodies.
Stock must be provided with a comfortable, dry bedded laying area. Loose housing which is well bedded is preferred. Space requirements for stock range from 1.0m2 – 1.5m2 per 100 KGliveweight. Slats can be used, but no more than half of the floor area available to each group of stock may be slatted. Existing cubicles can be used provided they are of adequate size and that sufficient bedding is provided.

An outdoor yard area or lean-to can often be used in calculating space available, providing stock have free access to it and there are no possible waste management or pollution issues.

Animal health

A detailed animal health plan must be completed, preferably in conjunction with a veterinary surgeon, to show how the production system will be developed to promote good health, and become less dependent on veterinary medicines.

Preventative management is always encouraged, but any problems must always be dealt with promptly. The use of homoeopathic remedies is encouraged.

Veterinary medicines and antibiotics must not be used as a preventative medicine on a routine basis but should be used to prevent distress in the event of illness or injury.

The withdrawal period must be at least twice the stated withdrawal period. Where the legal withdrawal period is nil or less than 24 hours, the withdrawal period will be 48 hours.

Worm control should be achieved through careful grazing management practices to minimise exposure to infection. Some anthelmintics may be used as part of a control programme, which has been agreed with the control body, and to treat animals where clinical symptoms occur.

Vaccination is permitted under derogation in cases where there is a known disease risk.

Where an animal or group of animals receive more than three courses of treatment within one year they lose their organic status, with the exception of vaccination, treatment for parasites and any compulsory eradication schemes. Such livestock would then have to go through a further conversion period to regain organic status.

If organophosphorus products are used, the animals lose their organic status forever.

Clear recording of all veterinary medicine purchase and use is essential.


Purchased cattle must not come from herds which have had a case of BSE.

Contacts for further information

Michael Doherty (Down and Armagh)
Glenree House,
Unit 2,
Springhill Road,
Carnbane Industrial Estate,

Tel: 028 3025 5907
Mobile: 07876 394676

Mike McCorry (Antrim and Londonderry)
18 The Square,

Tel: 028 9332 2399
Mobile: 07747 841523

Francis Breen (Tyrone and Fermanagh)
Sperrin House,
Sedan Avenue,

Tel: 028 8225 3408
Mobile: 07876 758930

Back to top