DIFFERENT APPROACH: Cathie Harvey, Narrung, said the benefits to farming organically had outweighed any difficulties.

Organic effort rewarded

A FORMER self-confessed “sceptic” has found renewed passion for organic farming.

Cathie Harvey, who operates a dairy, beef and cropping farm at Tauwitchere, Narrung, with husband David, believes the results in organic farming speak for themselves.

Prior to their 2007 transition, the Harveys had been farming conventionally for 20 years.

“I was very sceptical about organics,” Dr Harvey said.

After listening to the late biological farming lecturer Jerry Brunetti, they began to reassess their soils.

“We put on a lot of heavy fertilisers and chemicals like pesticides and herbicides,” she said.

“It was like being on a treadmill – the more we put on, the more we needed. We’d noticed that our heavy nitrogen pastures, the cows would not even eat.”

They didn’t make the change to organic farming “cold turkey”, instead trialling biological farming techniques, such as composting. Improvements in soil health were enough to convince them to go fully-organic.

The Harveys are both Nuffield scholars – Dr Harvey in soil biology and Mr Harvey in dairy technology.

“We knew that when you’re producing a commodity, you’re always going to be price takers,” she said. “We needed to find a niche product to get more value.”

They run about 300 Angus cows and sell organic steers direct to processor Teys.

The dairy has twice-yearly calving, with an average 250 Holstein-Jersey cows milked in each calving. The milk is sold to local organic-certified milk processor B.-d. Farms Paris Creek.

“The cows do produce less milk but we get a premium,” Dr Harvey said.

They also crop about 150 hectares of barley to create silage and hay, to minimise feed gaps.

As organic producers, they are limited in the use of antibiotics or drenches.

“It can be a huge issue for the dairy,” she said.

“We don’t do dry cow, we can’t use teat seal, and we can’t treat a cow with mastitis or footrot with antibiotics. If we do treat animals, they are no longer organic, and we take them out of the herd.”

Dr Harvey said this meant they had changed their focus with the cattle health.

“We are pretty meticulous on preventing disease,” she said.

Cows are calved in huge paddocks and kept calm to minimise the likelihood of environmental stress.

Pasture regeneration has also involved a change in thinking, with the Harveys applying compost to the sandy soils to build organic matter.

Dr Harvey said the decision had worked out for them.

“When we look at the whole picture, it has been better thing for us to be organic,” she said. “You do have to be committed and believe in it and want to do it without using chemicals.”