Organic sheep production

To produce organic sheep, the farm must be registered with an approved organic control body. These control bodies each require a detailed set of standards to be followed. The system adopted should comply with those of your chosen control body since individual control body standards may differ slightly from each other, and from the EU Organic Standard. Some of the key aspects of production are given below.

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 lambs sold will achieve organic status at the earliest possible date.

Time scale for conversion

It takes a minimum of two years to convert the land to organic status. The breeding stock must then be managed organically from tupping time for their lambs to be classified as organic. Lambs sold as organic must have come from fully converted land at the time of sale.

However, simultaneous conversion, where possible, can speed up the process.

Simultaneous conversion

With simultaneous conversion, the complete farm must be converted in a single phase, together with the stock, and the stock must be fed mainly with products from the farm.

Lambs born from existing ewes mated on the farm, and which have been managed to organic standards from the start of conversion, can be sold as organic after the completion of the twoyear simultaneous conversion period.

Selling and buying stock

Farm to farm trading is a necessary part of purchasing and marketing livestock.

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

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 ewes can be sold as organic following the required conversion periods. Ewes must be mated under full organic management to enable the lambs to be sold as organic. Breeds must be suitable for local conditions.

Replacements

Although producers are encouraged to rear their own replacements or to buy from other organic farms, a derogation allows up to 20percent (10percent with some control bodies) of the breeding flock to be replaced each year with ewe lambs or unsucked hoggets from conventional flocks, which satisfy a number of criteria.

Care should be taken to source healthy stock kept on farms that have high health and welfare standards and where proper records of all veterinary treatments have been maintained.

Store lambs

Store lambs can be purchased from other organic farms.

As it is difficult to finish lambs in some parts of the country, especially in hill areas, lambs can be sold from rearing to finishing farms, for example from organic hill to organic lowland farms.

Rams

Stock rams can be purchased from conventional farms provided they are subsequently managed to organic standards. Hired and borrowed rams can be used provided they are managed organically while they are on the farm.

Non-organic stock

Conventional store lambs may not be brought in and finished as organic stock. Also, organic and non-organic stock of the same species may not be present on the same holding.

Conventional stock of another species may use organic pasture for up to 120 days each year subject to a number of specific requirements being met. This requires prior permission from the control body.

Feeding

From the start of conversion, all feeds used on the holding must be free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Organic sheep must be fed on organically produced feedstuffs. Maximum use should be made of grazing, and all of the feed required should ideally be produced on the farm.

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

Up to 30percent of the feed may come from in-conversion sources. Where it is produced on the holding on which it will be used up to 60percent of the feed may be in-conversion.

The balance of the ration should meet full organic standards.

Forage

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

Concentrates

Where home produced organic cereals are available, these will form the basis of the concentrate ration. Organic concentrates can be purchased, though they can be scarce and expensive. Protein sources may be difficult to produce on the farm. Purchased feed must meet a number of criteria, including freedom from:

  • GMOs
  • ingredients that have been exposed to solvent extraction
  • fish meal

Minerals

Mineral supplementation is only permitted where trace element requirements cannot be met by the practices of organic husbandry.

Grassland

Establishment and management of cloverbased swards are crucial to the success of organic sheep farms. Clover is required to sustain high levels of productivity, especially on improved grassland as it is the main source of nitrogen.

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.

Breeding ewes should not be grazed on red clover, or fed red clover silage for at least four weeks before and after mating, to avoid any adverse effect of red clover oestrogens on lambing percentage.

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.
More information is available in the organic series leaflets ‘White clover-based swards on organic farms' and ‘Red clover-based swards on organic farms’.

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

Common land

It may be possible to graze organic sheep on common land which has not received prohibited inputs for at least three years.

The organic sheep must be clearly identified and adequately segregated from non-organic animals. There must be no risk that they can access prohibited materials eg non-organic feed blocks.

Meeting the standards for use of common land must be proved to your control body before the animals can be regarded as organic.

Livestock manures

Manure may be brought in from other organic farms. The total quantity of nitrogen applied on the farm may not exceed 170KGN/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 250KGN/ha/yr.

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

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

Housing

Note that housing space requirements can differ between control bodies.
Stock must be provided with a comfortable, dry bedded laying area. Loose housing that is well bedded is preferred. 1.5 m2 should be allowed for each ewe with an additional 0.35 m2 for each lamb. Although slats or wire mesh floors can be used they must not exceed one half of the floor area available to each group of stock.

Animal health

A detailed animal health plan must be drawn up, 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 agreed with the control body, and to treat animals where clinical symptoms occur.
Where there is a known risk vaccination, which has been agreed in advance with the control body, is permitted. Single vaccines are preferred to more complex multiple vaccines, unless such cover is specifically required.

To minimise the risk of sheep scab, closed flocks are recommended. Care should be taken to avoid contamination from purchased stock, transport vehicles and shearing equipment. If treatment is required, moxidectin, doramectin and ivermectin, can be used providing they are already in your animal health plan. Note that there will be extensive withdrawal periods for these before animals can be sold for meat.

Fly strike should be minimised by dagging tails and keeping wool clean. Where treatment is required, the use of cyromazine (Vetrazin) and deltramethin (Spot On) is permitted.

Where an animal or group of animals receive more than three courses of treatment with chemicallysynthesised allopathic veterinary medicinal products or antibiotics within one year, they lose their organic status. Exceptions are vaccination, treatment for parasites and any compulsory eradication schemes.

Lambs or other stock with a lifecycle of less than one year may only be treated once before they loose their organic status.

However, it may be possible for stock to regain their organic status if they go through a further conversion period.

If an organophosphorus product is used, animals lose their organic status for all time.

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

Contacts for further information

Michael Doherty (Down and Armagh)
Glenree House,
Unit 2,
Springhill Road,
Carnbane Industrial Estate,
NEWRY, BT35 6EF

Tel: 028 3025 5907
Mobile: 07876 394676
Email: michael.j.doherty@dardni.gov.uk

Mike McCorry (Antrim and Londonderry)
18 The Square,
BALLYCLARE, BT39 9BB

Tel: 028 9332 2399
Mobile: 07747 841523
Email: mike.mccorry@dardni.gov.uk

Francis Breen (Tyrone and Fermanagh)
Sperrin House,
Sedan Avenue,
OMAGH, BT79 7AQ

Tel: 028 8225 3408
Mobile: 07876 758930
Email: francis.breen@dardni.gov.uk

Back to top