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Proposal for a new organic status for hill farmers
and conservation farmers:
Organic B introduction and problems with the organic
Open letter to the Soil Association and the Organic Farmers and
Dr Ruth Watkins
Welsh Hill Farmer and former Consultant Virologist
Filed 19 Jan 05
I am coming out of the organic farming scheme
at the earliest opportunity. I am a hill farmer and bought a small
organic farm in its second year of conversion four years ago. I
am not alone among hill farmers in finding it impossible to continue.
Rather than go quietly I would like to do something to improve animal
welfare on upland organic farms.
The two issues upon which organic rules fail my
hill farm are the welfare of the farm animals and the conservation
of ancient grassland. I am a sheep and beef farmer with local native
breeds on a permanent pasture farm at 600 feet situated in the westernmost
end of the Brecon Beacons National Park. In the summer my hefted
flock of sheep grazes the common land of the Black mountain. In
this idyllic setting I never imagined that being organic could be
so unsatisfactory. The organic rules have made it impossible for
me to market healthy organic lambs, to prevent staggers caused by
low magnesium in my cows with calves and to conserve my rare fen
The organic rules as devised by Europe, and you,
seem to be designed for mixed farms and not for permanent pasture
farms. On the mixed farm much or all of the farmland is improved
and on drained lowland. The improved land can be ploughed and be
part of a crop rotation over a period of several years consisting
of one or two cereal crops, root crops or legumes, and clover rich
short-term grass leys. This provides high quality animal fodder,
clean pasture free of worm larvae for lambs, improvement of soil
fertility through nitrogen fixation and control of perennial weeds
such as creeping thistle. Applications of calcified seaweed, manure,
magnesium limestone, rock phosphate and trace elements can be made
as necessary. The welfare of the farm animals is satisfactory under
However this is in contrast to the permanent pasture
farm, usually on acid soil that may be wet or very wet from a high
rainfall and lack of drainage and often low in one or more essential
minerals where the welfare of the animals is greatly improved by
mineral supplementation and vaccines and treatments to prevent disease
and death. It may also be steep and rocky and not susceptible to
topping as a means of controlling weeds, let alone ploughing.
It is likely to have few if any fields suitable for cultivation
and cropping. The forage conserved annually will be of lower nutritional
value than that from legumes, red clover or a new grass ley of rye
grass and white clover. As it is less favoured in terms of arable
or dairy production there is likely to be unimproved pasture that
has been left untouched since modern farming techniques, organic
or non-organic were introduced.
Conservation of unimproved pasture
Unimproved pastures should not be ploughed, limed,
manured or spread with nitrogen, phosphorous or trace elements.
Improved pastures are those that have received chemical fertilizers
or rock phosphate, slag and significant amounts of manure at some
time in the past fifty years or so, and that have been drained and
ploughed and sown with purchased seed. The plant community on unimproved
or ancient pasture, in comparison with an improved pasture, consists
of a much richer diversity of plant species that are native to Britain.
These are sensitive to the level of nitrogen and phosphorous and
out-competed by agricultural grasses and weeds that thrive when
these elements are applied in any form.
The native species of wild plants cannot be bought
from seed merchants who supply seed mixed from monocultures that
consist of hybrids, varieties or sub-species and may be derived
from abroad, rather than our native plants many of which cannot
be cultivated in monoculture. Genetically these plants are different
and a botanist can recognise these from amongst the native flora.
I found the merchant, from whom I bought extremely expensive seed
suitable for woodland to cover a landslip, could not give me the
genetic provenance of the seed he supplied. Most of the plant species
that emerged from the seed he sold me are recognisably different
to the local native flora species though called by the same name.
I got his catalogue free with the Organic Farming magazine!
He was not interested in gathering seed from my wet meadows. Improved
fields are not easily or quickly changed back to the unimproved
state, thus the importance of conserving the unimproved and ancient
pasture that remains.
A permanent pasture farm is commonly on upland,
often called marginal or less favoured land, and occurs down the
whole of the western half of the British Isles along the Atlantic
seaboard. Upland pasture may be grassland, fen or moor, the latter
usually common grazing. The topsoil may be a mineral soil or peat
and excepting chalk down, which is alkaline, it is usually acidic.
The underlying subsoil or rock may be permeable (well drained) or
impermeable to water (wet), may contain a rich variety of different
elements or very few elements available for plants as in the case
of granite or old red sandstone. The depth of topsoil and subsoil
There is also less favoured lowland; undrained
fens, marshes or levels, as well as brecks and heaths. Clearly less
favoured land is not usually favourable for growing crops, except
perhaps for lowland fens and levels. Unimproved pasture is of high
conservation value whether upland or lowland. It is a complex spectrum
of habitats supporting many insects, butterflies and moths, amphibians,
birds and mammals as well as plants. Many species of sedges, rushes,
grasses, forbs or herbs, ferns and horsetails, mosses and liverworts
make up these plant communities.
The unimproved pasture has evolved in some cases
over thousands of years since the first Neolithic farmers and the
Bronze age. Light and timely grazing with our native breeds of farm
animals maintain the unimproved grassland and moor plant communities,
otherwise most would return to climax woodland with permanent loss
of these special habitats. This type of farmland is a jewel in the
crown of British landscape biodiversity. The ecology of the Western
seaboard of Europe is greatly enriched by this diverse ancient pasture
with a high rainfall and under the influence of the oceanic climate
of the Atlantic.
My fen meadow and the problem with alder
I have pastures that have never been ploughed,
that are wet and marshy including a fen meadow. These pastures are
ideally grazed by cattle, the best conservators as they graze unselectively
and wrap their tongue round the forage to tear off a mouthful leaving
the lower leaves of the plant intact.
Alder invading from the surrounding carr is threatening
to overwhelm some of the last hectares of this fen meadow of the
type m24c in South Wales (British Plant Communities vol. 2 edited
by Rodwell). Under the direction of the welsh countryside scheme
Tir Gofal, so as not to disturb the plant community of the fen meadow,
each individual alder tree (100s) must be carefully poisoned by
hand with Round up. This is an herbicide that reaches the roots
of the plant it is applied to, is confined to that plant and is
biodegraded in about 6 weeks. Interestingly animals avoid grazing
alder, perhaps it is too bitter, and this may be the reason why
alder carr surrounds my fen and encroaches upon it. I found that
the cattle browsed seven of some 240 small alder trees I monitored
whilst they heavily browsed every other type of young tree, some
140 birch, willow, oak and ash, and that these were on average one
metre shorter than the alder.
The fen meadow must be grazed each year, 50% of
the purple moor grass must be eaten off, so it does not become rank
and overwhelm the other members of the plant community. It will
take several years to undo the neglect that has allowed young alders
to become established; meanwhile I will not be allowed to graze
it with my organic Welsh Black cattle under the organic rules.
Health issues for sheep and cattle on hill farms and unimproved
I see myself as a conservation farmer, a Flora
and Fauna farmer. My farm is too small to be commercially viable,
and together with many small farmers in Europe I farm only part
Native breeds of farm animal are the most suitable
for me and I must buy in any high quality food my animals need,
and supply them with the essential trace elements lacking in my
soil in a form I am sure they will consume. Spreading trace elements
and magnesium limestone is limited to my few improved pastures.
The cattle, my best conservationists, must graze the unimproved
pasture, the wet and marshy grassland, heath and the fen meadow,
for 4 months of the year.
They require magnesium whilst they calve and lactate
especially when the fodder is poor and the weather is bad - not
just during the spring flush of grass growth. Magnesium is bitter
and the organic forms I am allowed to give they find unpalatable.
They would rather die than lick them. I was lucky to save one cow
from my small herd of seven but then lost another to low magnesium,
staggers, two days after she calved.
The liquid molasses with magnesium I need to give,
on the vets recommendation, is not permitted under organic
rules as it contains vitamins. However they will all consume sufficient
of this to prevent death from staggers. It is difficult to get what
I need for supplementation of trace elements, cobalt, copper, selenium
and zinc from organic suppliers and what I have had has been unpalatable
and thus insufficient for the cattle. These trace elements are all
included in the molasses magnesium mixture I am not supposed to
give them under organic rules.
Cattle and sheep
Liver fluke is prevalent in this wet landscape
and infects both cattle and sheep. Parasitic worm larvae on the
pastures thrive in wet conditions and are not eliminated by frost
and snow. Infectious parasites such as scab mites, ticks, and lice
are passed among the sheep grazing common land, as also is the virus
infection, Orf. Clostridia and other bacterial infections, especially
of sheeps feet, lurk in the wet pasture. Vaccines and appropriate
treatment with modern medicines to prevent these infections is needed
as well as supplementary minerals to redress the deficiencies.
A consumers disappointment at the reality of organic farming
I had not expected to encounter such a number
of welfare problems on an organic farm.
I had unreasonable expectations because once I
was a fluffy bunny consumer imagining that organic farming was synonymous
with healthy farming - healthy for the animals, the countryside
I was an urban dweller, a resident of London,
who knew nothing about farming. I worked as a doctor, a clinical
virologist, and when I had cancer and the treatment for it I became
interested in nutrition. I took mineral and vitamin supplements
during that difficult time and bought organic food. I did this to
avoid pesticide and herbicide residues that may have had oestrogen-like
or other harmful mutagenic effects. I also imagined that the expensive
organic meat I bought came from animals that were especially healthy,
grazing on old-fashioned meadowland or mountains, compared to those
I could not have been more wrong about organic
animals from upland farms. I never dreamt that they were refused
mineral and vitamin supplements, modern vaccines or medicines, should
they be needed to keep them healthy and prevent disease. Treatment
is allowed for organic animals once they are ill, but it is usually
too late and they have died, cannot be saved or have been permanently
harmed, their often short life blighted by ill health and their
Instead of the pastoral bliss I had foolishly
imagined I found sickness that could have been prevented in my lambs,
death from staggers in a cow that could also have been prevented,
and my fen meadow threatened by rules that would not allow my organic
welsh black cows to graze it were I to eliminate the invading alder
scrub with round-up as recommended by Tir Gofal the countryside
scheme for Wales.
The first year my lambs were really sick was in
2002, my first fully organic crop of lambs in contrast to 2001 my
last crop of non-organic lambs. In 2002 after weaning the lambs
growth was stunted and they were thin; they had staring friable
wool of poor quality and permanent diarrhoea with filthy rears.
Some died. I had the vet and it was mineral deficiency of cobalt,
selenium and zinc, together with parasitic gastroenteritis caused
by worms. I was horrified to find that following the organic rules
had produced this preventable disease. Despite oral treatment with
mineral drenches and anti-wormer they never fully recovered. My
organic farming neighbours have suffered similar problems with their
organic lambs and feel the same revulsion and sorrow at the needless
suffering, quite apart from the financial loss.
Parasite infection in lambs
The lambs need anti-wormer two or three times in their short lives
when they cannot have truly clean pasture to graze. They are too
young when killed to have developed the natural immunity to worms
that occurs around one year of age. The lambs pick up worms on the
mountain as well as in my fields. The grassland here is never baked
bone dry for weeks on end, so the worm larvae are not eliminated
by natural means (ploughing or not grazing for more than one year
are other ways of cleaning a pasture of worm larvae). Ideally the
lambs should also be treated for fluke as well when they are brought
down from the mountain, as upon slaughter a number are found to
have gross lesions in their liver.
Essential minerals, trace elements for lambs
The lambs also need trace elements. The trace elements are in the
lowest part of the grass in the stem near the soil, as are the worm
larvae, so infrequent grazing of sheep pastures when the grass reaches
more than 4 inches high is not ideal from a nutritional point of
view.Cutting a pasture for hay does remove some worm larvae and
provides relatively clean pasture on the new growth called the aftermath.
The lambs graze on the aftermath of my improved hay fields from
September onwards when they are weaned.
I have tried seaweed meal to provide the minerals
they need, mixed with whole oats to tempt them to eat it. This can
only be started when they are down from the mountain in September,
they need time to acquire the taste for eating it and they wont
touch it when it is wetted by rain. Not all lambs will eat it anyway.
Whilst it was dry in 2003 and the oats and seaweed meal helped,
in 2004 it was so wet that they would not take it. In wet weather
when they most need it they wont eat it.
In 2004 the lambs were sick again with mineral
deficiency and diarrhoea. I checked for worms but they were clear
and they responded well to a mineral drench, Liquithrive for sheep.
The very wet weather had either washed away the trace elements I
have spread on the improved fields, or the grass cannot take them
up when the ground is saturated.
Trace element boluses are too big for small lambs,
and may be brought up and I find them on the pasture. Lambs wont
lick any block no matter how palatable.
The best way to give trace elements to lambs is
to give an oral dose to all the lambs before they develop a clinical
deficiency. The drenches I can purchase for this are not allowed
by the organic rules because a few elements are chelated and vitamins
A, D and E are normally included, as in Agri-Lloyds organically
chelated Liquithrive preparation for sheep.
I need to be able to use the products available
to me down at the farmers shop. The alternative, of persuading
Rumenco, who make non-organic palatable licks suitable for ewes
or cows, to make such licks for me within the organic rules, is
too expensive, as they must stop all production, clean the factory
and then will make no less than a ton at a time!
I have not been able to finish an organic lamb
since September 2003. Those in 2002 were not finished but sold as
stores when they had made their limited recovery as they were in
Scab and fluke in sheep
I also need to treat the lambs for scab, the sheep scab mite causes
mange. It is picked up on the common grazing. I dont wish
to give this up as this is part of our cultural and environmental
heritage and hefted flocks of sheep once lost are difficult to recreate.
I any case my sheep also pick this up from my neighbours untreated
sheep, either through a gate or when they escape from a field and
come close to my sheep.
I cannot dip my sheep to treat or prevent scab
because I have no safe way to dispose of the environmental poison
one is permitted to use on organic farms (the pyrethroids permitted
are highly toxic to freshwater organisms in streams and take some
time to biodegrade), so I must use injection.
I am allowed to give an injection of Dectomax
for example but I am obliged to double the manufacturers withholding
time before the lamb can be slaughtered. For Dectomax 56 days turns
into 112 days and I cannot keep the lambs until after Christmas
as my grass is too poor in the winter for their continued growth,
and the organic premium has finished for the season by then.
When an organic farm gets scab in the lamb flock
it loses commercial viability and this alone occurring year upon
year is reason enough to leave the organic movement. The same long
withholding period applies to the use of an anti-fluke.
There is no scientific reason for doubling the
recommended withholding time of medicines - it tempts organic farmers
not to treat scab or fluke properly and thoroughly.
Treating other infections in sheep
Problems with Orf, clostridial infections, lameness from foot rot
and flystrike must all be addressed to produce live marketable lambs
whether for slaughter or breeding.
Orf is brought back from the mountain by a few
lambs and spread amongst the flock by the thistles present in the
pasture. It sets back their growth for weeks, and can be prevented
Both ewes and lambs may need to be vaccinated
against clostridial and pneumonic infections. An organic neighbour
lost 17% of their lamb crop during the summer to these infections
in 2004 because this was the first year they were fully organic
and they were not allowed in consequence to vaccinate the lambs
as they had hitherto.
The lethal pneumonia caused by pasteurella bacteria
that occurs in young animals killing them within hours, can be prevented
by vaccination. Modern vaccines against the seven or more clostridial
diseases that can affect sheep (including tetanus) are based on
the same principles as the vaccine to prevent tetanus in humans,
caused by infection with the bacterium Clostridium tetani. When
vaccination with a toxoid vaccine is given prior to infection, protection
is conferred by the immunity that has been raised against lethal
toxins that are secreted by the bacteria. Clostridial bacteria are
free living in the soil so the risk of infection may be ever present.
Essential trace elements for lambs, basic
Denied supplementary cobalt whilst grazing pasture deficient in
it, the lamb will become sick. My old red sandstone soil is deficient
in cobalt at the surface and none is detectable in the subsoil.
Plants cannot take up and accumulate cobalt if it is not there.
Similarly zinc. The lamb becomes deficient in
vitamin B12 after weaning because the bacteria in the rumen have
insufficient cobalt in the plant matter to synthesize vitamin B12
that will be absorbed by the lamb further down the gut. An important
source of B12 in the diet for humans is consumption of meat such
as lamb. It is not good for the lamb to be deficient in B12, neither
is it so for us.
Zinc is just as important to growth and health
both in lambs and humans. Sufficient zinc should be consumed every
day for optimal health and function of the immune system. A normal
level of zinc in the lamb contributes to healthy feet and the prevention
The Organic B scheme - the solution for organic farming
Organic farming is anti-science
There is much good modern science on healthy nutrition and prevention
of infection in farm animals. The attitude taken by the organic
rules to mineral and vitamin supplements and the use of vaccines
and anti-parasitic preparations is without scientific foundation.
There is no scientific reason why farm animals should not receive
these products to supplement their diet and prevent infection.
Homeopathy should not be imposed upon organic
farmers especially where there is no proof that it is efficacious,
in treating parasitic and other infections for example. The organic
inspectors ensure that each organic farm must experiment by following
the organic rules to the letter and reinvent the wheel in order
to use supplements and vaccines they know they need on their farm
for which they must obtain proof.
Inevitably on a hill farm this leads to disaster,
suffering and death for the animals, loss of commercial viability
with an unmarketable product and expensive bills for the vet and
numerous tests to produce the proof they need for the organic certification
I wonder that organic bodies are prepared to offer
registration to upland farms without a crop rotation or an annual
reseeding of new grass leys. Organic farming has a poor reputation
for animal welfare on upland farms that is justified by my and my
The organic B farming scheme proposed
To redress the reputation of organic farming,
to put animal welfare first on permanent pasture farms, I propose
the creation of a new category of organic farmer that I will call
The organic farmers that are able to follow all
the organic rules as conceived at present I will call Organic A
The Organic B farmers would be permitted
to use modern vaccines and medicines as necessary for the welfare
of their animals, abiding by the manufacturers withholding
times without prolonging these. Organic B farmers would
also be allowed to use the nutritional supplements in the form of
blocks or drenches purchased from the farm shop, as they were needed.
Whilst avoiding GMO foods in the feedstuffs purchased, a small and
insignificant amount in some of the licks and blocks available would
have to be accepted. Even if the Organic B farmers received
lower prices for their products than the Organic A farmers,
at least they would have a healthy product to sell and may be able
to remain commercially viable.
Also the present organic rules are not made with
regard to conservation of permanent pasture. The use of herbicides
that are biodegradable and best of all specific, for example hand-wiping
alder with Round up or spraying bracken with the specific herbicide
Asulox, should also be permitted under Organic B rules.
Tall weeds such as bracken and thistle harbour flies and ticks,
a menace to sheep.
To cut annually, perhaps more than once every
year and by hand, bracken and weeds on permanent pasture is soul
destroying and obviously not as useful and satisfying as hand-howing
vegetables! The lazy dog method is not useful against rhizomatous
weeds like bracken and creeping thistle, and their tools break on
stony and rushy ground.
In the 21st century there is not the cheap abundant
labour to control weeds by hand as there was in the 19th century.
We must take what help we can from modern methods. In fact compared
with improved pasture there isnt a problem on unimproved pasture
with agricultural weeds except bracken, brambles and trees invading
from the field edges. Any use of herbicide on unimproved and ancient
pasture is done only at the instigation of a conservation scheme
such as Tir Gofal.
The conflict of the present organic rules with conservation
Surely it is the conservation of the soil and
its fertility that is important in the organic movement. Whilst
this precludes the application of chemical fertiliser, soluble nitrogen
phosphorous and potassium, this surely does include conservation
of our native plants and the special habitats a long established
community of such plants creates on our various soils.
Flame weeding is allowed under the organic rules
yet this is detrimental to the soil killing all the organisms near
the surface of the soil - entomologists think this is more harmful
than round up! It also kills the seed bank of native plant species.
But perhaps there is none in intensively cropped organic soils.
Conversely under the organic rules at present
I would do better to drain, plough, lime, fertilise and cover with
trace elements and magnesium the ancient fen meadow, the Erica tetralix
acid heath, and the never ploughed wet and marshy fields to improve
the health of my farm animals. Of course I would not do so. It would
be outrageous in the name of organic farming to do this.
I believe organic farming is missing something
that is really important.
The informed organic consumer would love to purchase
meat from animals that had grazed these unimproved and ancient grasslands,
whether enclosed in fields or on the common land of our hills, moors
and mountains. The rearing of animals on permanent pasture is more
extensive and less intensive than that on mixed farms.
Also the informed organic consumer would be reassured
to know that these animals had enjoyed healthy lives with optimal
nutrition, treatment of worms, fluke and other parasites as necessary,
and vaccination against diseases they would unavoidably meet whilst
they lived their lives in the most natural way possible.
Urban consumers would like to play a role in conserving
our countryside, our soil and native plant communities and habitats.
An Organic B farming movement would enable them to do
so. It would enable the official organic management of far more
farmland than at present and add a new dimension to the meaning
of animal welfare within the organic movement and its commitment