Lifestyle choice paying off

Organic dairy farmers , Stephen and Janet Fleming
Organic dairy farmers , Stephen and Janet Fleming

An eight-year organic journey is finally reaping benefits for a South Taranaki farming couple.

Janet and Stephen Fleming milk 530 cross-bred cows on two certified organic dairy farms comprising 184 hectares (effective) in the Pihama-Oeo area.

Certification takes three years and audits are conducted every 12 months, and at random, by certifying authority Bio-Gro.

The couple, who turned to organic farming in 2004 after Mr Fleming noticed farm pastures were not responding well to nitrogen fertilisers, expect to produce 200,000kg of milksolids this season.

"This is the first year that it's been economic," Mrs Fleming said. "It's been a big learning curve."

"You don't farm organically for the money. You go into organics because you believe in it. It's a lifestyle, a passion.

"But it's still a business and it still has to be profitable. It's been a journey and if you do the production, organic farming is economical."

They milk all year round, calving in autumn and spring, and receive both a $1.05 organic premium and a winter premium from Fonterra. Last year the company announced it was consolidating its organic milk collection in the Waikato and the couple are still working through their options after their contract expires on July 14.

When the couple switched to organic farming, they stopped using urea and pasture growth rates and production dropped.

Now they're using Osflo's organic fertiliser, which was not available when they started organic farming. Grass growth this season is approaching what it was when they were farming conventionally - currently 67kg dry matter/hectare/day.

Soil tests on the home farm show pH of 6.2, olsen phosphorus of 47, potassium of 24, calcium of 14, magnesium 63 and 17.22 per cent organic matter.

"So organic farming hasn't harmed our soil," Mr Fleming said.

They spray dairy effluent on the farms because they like returning the nutrients to the soil.

Recently they spread 2.4 million litres after emptying an effluent pond.

Keen supporters of riparian management, they have fenced the streams on both farms and streambank planting is almost complete.

The couple keep organic pigs and sheep for meat and Mrs Fleming is keen to find a way to sell unpasteurised organic milk to the public.

She said raw organic milk was full of goodness and she believed it helped combat eczema and asthma. "I'd like to see more people choose organic farming," said Mrs Fleming, who finds townies are usually more interested in the couple's philosophies than other dairy farmers.

Their low-input, grass-only farm system produces about a third of their hay and silage, so they also buy organic certified silage and hay that contains lucerne, oats and vetch. Recently they have noticed vetch seeding in their paddocks, which also display an abundance of clover.

The Flemings' South Taranaki location means they must plan for dry summers. Drying off a third of the herd in February and March for autumn calving - usually just as the dry spell takes effect - helps save pasture.

When they started organic farming, the number of products they could use on the farm was limited. The range of products available for animal health, detergents and fertilisers is much broader now.

"We know what we can use and what's sustainable. Farming organically makes you think about what you use before you use it," Mrs Fleming said. "We have a toolbox [of approved medications] we can use. We treat mastitis with a product that works - just like a conventional herd." The animal health products the couple used were not homoeopathic but a new range that worked successfully and which was also suitable for human use.

Their vet uses products from an approved list to treat their animals.

"Farming organically has changed our outlook in how we treat our animals," Mr Fleming said.

"The cows are in good condition - they're certainly not less healthy than when we started."

They have a good knowledge and understanding of the various products and have learned short- cuts to ensure everything they use is organic.

"Our farming is similar to what other people do - but we're using sustainable, natural products."

The couple have surrounded themselves with professionals, including Farmwise farm adviser Peter Moffitt, of Oakura, who said his focus for the couple was maintaining cow efficiency and balancing the consumption of expensive bought-in feed with round length.

Organic farming was a lifestyle choice and profit was not their only goal.

"It's harder to be a good farmer when you farm organically because your options are limited.

"I'm a sounding board and provide a benchmark for their business," he said.

Their six children, aged between 15 and 25, have all been actively involved in the farming operation and also provide a sounding board for the couple.

Another reference point is the national Organic Dairy and Pastoral Group, of which Mrs Fleming is treasurer.

As well, the farm is one of two in Taranaki where DairyNZ has been researching organic dairy farming as part of a national study.

Taranaki Daily News