Speaker discusses livestock on organic operations
NEW BRUNSWICK — One of the ironies of organic farming is that “80 percent of organic farmers believe you need to have livestock to be organic and 80 percent of organic farmers don’t have livestock.”
James Kotcon of the University of West Virginia’s Organic Research farm made that comment when he presented on managing high-tannin forages for organic sheep production at the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s conference at Cook/Douglass on Friday, Jan. 26.
He also presented at the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Winter Conference on Saturday, Jan. 27.
The university set up its organic farm with 19 crops early in the organic movement.
They said the focus of most of the research is studying organic agriculture systems so variety was important as was the presence of companion animals if possible.
The research farm is within the city limits of Morgantown, making it easy for students to get there, Kotcon said.
“We are trying to educate the next generation of organic farmers,” he said.
Kotcon’s research team decided to use sheep in their project because of the small plots of land available to them.
Besides the small size of the plots, the possibility of compaction in wet soil was greater with large animals.
Since pasture access rules are strict with organic livestock, managing nutrients was also a concern.
“Sheep are not just short cows,” he said. Lambs are sensitive to many disease parasites. Most lambs eat 30 percent forage, the experimental group was eating almost 100 percent on pasture. They have certain parasites that make it difficult to keep them organically.
“We quickly ran into intestinal parasites,” Kotcon said.
The particular parasite, Haemonchus contortus, also known as the barber pole worm or the bankruptcy worm is ingested off grass and is infective in the third stage of the larvae.
So the key to control is rotating the sheep from small paddock to small paddock within the pasture so they won’t eat grass with the larvae on it.
There are three days from the time the nematode drops eggs to the larvae becoming infectious is four days. Rotating the sheep every three days should keep them from ingesting the nematode at the wrong moment.
Stress emphasis on “should.”
In practice, the sheep, noticing how green the grass was in other paddocks and wanting to say with their flocks, jumped the fences, Kotcon said.
“The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior says under the most controlled conditions your animal will do as it damn well pleases,” he noted.
The nematodes cause the sheep to lose blood and develop severe anemia. The best confirmation is to check the animal’s lower eyelid.
If it is white or very light pink, the infection is present and the sheep doesn’t have long to live. There is treatment, but the medications mean the herd is no longer organic.
Only the sheep that have the parasite should be treated because the treatment can create resistance to the antibiotic.
Keeping organic sheep is very labor intensive, Kotcon said. Not only must the sheep be rotated every three days to minimize the close grazing that sheep are known for, the entire pasture must be rotated.
The experiment station practiced a four-year rotation of field crops and livestock. In another area, the researchers practiced a seven-year rotation with a three-year layover of grassland or three extra years of legumes.
The researchers tried both composted and non-composted fields.
Some breeds are more resistant to the nematode than others. The popular Dorset-Suffolk is susceptible, Kotcon said.
After 17 years of the project, the soil was visibly improved, Kotcon said.
The best forages for these organic sheep are high tannin and much of Kotcon’s research is focused on that. Orchard grass and red clover have no tannins at all are should be avoided.
One of these is wormwood, so named because it is a deterrant to nematodes.
Others are varieties of legumes, chicory, hemp, and cranberry. Pine and spruce bark compost also put tannin into the soil. Birdsfoot trefoil seems to be the best, Kotcon said. He said a drought in 2016 caused a loss of BFT, but other benefits to the trefoil are being found. “It is worth more research,” he said.
Other plants are being tried for their usefulness in preventing bloat and parasites, he said.
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