Livestock systems

Keeping livestock is an integral part of many organic farming systems. Ruminant livestock (in the UK mainly cattle and sheep) can utilise grass and roughage as a feed resource so they do not compete with human food needs. For monogastric livestock (pigs and poultry), the main challenges arise from securing sufficient supply of protein to meet their dietary needs without undue reliance on imported feedstuffs, particularly soya. Organic farming systems also aim to improve animal welfare through access to pasture and to promote health through good animal husbandry.

Our work in the area covers both ruminants (mainly cattle) and non-ruminants (pigs and poultry) with particular focus on forage production and utilisation, including the role of legumes as a home grown protein feed resource. We are also investigating animal nutrition, in particular minerals and trace elements in ruminants and key proteins in monogastrics. The impact of forage, supplementary nutrients, grass-land management and housing on animal health is also addressed.


Dairy cattle at Eastbrook farm, part of a field lab on reducing
antibiotic use linking the SOLID and Duchy Future Farming

Our work on dairy production aims to find practical solutions to make organic and low-input systems more sustainable. As part of the SOLID project, we cover forage production and feeding, soils and nutrient management, animal health, business and supply chain interactions, the assessment of sustainability and environmental impact as well as the use of agroforestry in dairy farming.

We have developed a common approach for farmer-led research that addresses issues related to calf rearing on cows, reducing antibiotic use for the control of mastitis, comparing the establishment and productivity of diverse swards with that of conventional pastures, investigating the interactions between nutrition, health and levels of trace elements in the milk and determining the effects of mob grazing on soil and animal performance. All these areas of research have been identified as priorities by farmers, and in most cases the farmers are heavily involved in the conduct of the experiments or in the data collection and monitoring. The involvement of researchers in trial protocol development facilitates systematic data collection and analysis, making the results more robust and transferable beyond the group of farmers directly participating. All the studies have now been summarised and made available on

The studies confirm the value of direct farmer engagement in the development of practical solutions. For example, organic standards recommend that homeopathic and herbal remedies shall be used in preference to conventional therapies, but farmers find it difficult to obtain information about such treatments. In a discussion group run jointly with the Duchy Future Farming Programme some farmers reported using a liniment mint oil cream for preventing mastitis. This led to the setting up of on-farm trials on the effectiveness of this practice in reducing somatic cell counts (SCCs) in organic dairy cows on four farms. The SCCs of treated cows were found to be systematically lower compared to untreated animals, using data collected as part of National Milk Records. The results confirmed that liniment mint oil cream treatment can be used as a complementary on-farm practice to prevent mastitis incidences. It is likely that farmers will now be more confident in using this treatment, which will lead to reductions in the use of antibiotics. Participating farmers commented that the process of coming together to discuss the various practices used by other farmers helped them to improve further on the good practices they were already using.

Pigs and poultry

Becky weighing pigs at FAI

One of the biggest issues in organic pig and poultry production is meeting their requirements for protein from organic sources. Producers have relied on a derogation to organic standards that has allowed the inclusion of up to 5% non-organic feed. From December 2017 the derogation will end, and producers will be required to feed pigs and poultry a 100% organic diet. ORC and 11 partners across Europe investigated 100% organic feeding strategies to supply the required level of nutrients in different phases of production as part of the < a href=”/?go=Research and development&page=Livestock systems&i=projects.php&p_id=18″>ICOPP project. Feed trials were carried out with pigs (sows, piglets and finishers) and poultry (layers and broilers) and focused on concentrate feedstuffs, roughage, and foraging from the range. The project also looked at availability of relevant feeds across Europe, nutritional values of new feedstuffs, and economic and environmental assessment of new strategies.

For pigs, we found that protein requirements could be contributed to by the inclusion of: peas and faba beans for lactating sows; sainfoin seeds, particularly if de-hulled; grass pea seeds (up to 30% of ration) if heat-treated to address antinutritional factors; and mussel meal up to 5% of rations for growing/finishing pigs. For growing pigs, the inclusion of grass-silage cut at an early stage of development in a mixed diet with concentrates contributes to the energy and protein supply (preventing ulcer damage), but daily gain and feed conversion rate become poorer when silage is included at over 10%. In a diet with lucerne silage for growers no differences were found in growth rates when soybean protein was substituted with pea protein.

For poultry, preliminary trials carried out by ORC and FAI in Oxford suggested that protein from Spirulina algae can replace soya in broiler diets. We also found that:

  • Refining of ingredients of plant origin to enrich the relative content of methionine allows supply of relevant protein sources.
  • Insect meal (Hermetia illucens) up to 12% in the diet can replace soybean cake without any difference in egg production, feed conversion, health or taste of eggs.
  • The methionine content in the protein of early harvested lucerne is higher than that of soybean cake and almost twice as high as that of peas. In the diet for layers it may be included up to 20% dry matter without impairing egg production. In diets for slow growing broilers it can amount to 10-20% in the rearing period (weeks 1 to 4) and up to 30% in the fattening period (weeks 5 to 8) without impairing growth.

The use of roughage is mandatory in livestock organic production, but often the potential of roughage to contribute to the nutritional needs of pigs and poultry is unclear. Access to a foraging area represents a possibility for pigs and poultry to partly cover their nutritional needs by the biomass available in the range.

  • 1m2 of most habitats studied would contribute considerably to the daily requirements of laying hens for methionine and, in most cases, completely meet lysine requirements.
  • Low-protein diets stimulate broilers to forage in the range area and this can contribute to protein supply in broilers of slow-growing genotypes without detrimental effects on growth.
  • Foraging on well-established lucerne can make an important contribution to energy and protein supply in fattening pigs if they get regular access to new land (strip-grazing). However, the overall feed conversion rate becomes poorer, as was also seen when feeding grass silage to growing pigs.

ORC staff involved

Konstantinos Zaralis and Susanne Padel.

Current projects

Project title (acronym)FunderDescription
Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe (iSAGE)Horizon 2020Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe (iSAGE) is making the European Sheep and Goat sectors more sustainable, competitive and resilient. These improvements come from strong collaboration between industry and research institutions.

Completed projects

Project title (acronym)FunderDescription
Sustainable Organic and Low Input Dairying (SOLID)EC FP 7Improving the technical performance and economic competitiveness of organic and low input dairy systems in Europe while maximising their potential to deliver environmental goods and enhance biodiversity. Includes a large component of farmer participation.
Improved contribution of local feed to support 100% organic feed supply to pigs and poultry (ICOPP)Defra for UK work as part of the Core Organic IIThe aim of ICOPP is to produce economically profitable feeding strategies based on 100% organic feed across Europe, which will supply poultry and pigs the required level of nutrients throughout their lives while supporting high animal health and welfare.

See all completed projects here.

Key publications

The SOLID Farmer Handbook (2016) is a series of technical notes, produced by ORC, presenting a selection of results and recommendations of the work undertaken in SOLID. Download the Farmers Handbook or individual technical notes from

Crawley, Kenny and van Krimpen, Marinus (editor): Smith, Jo; Gerrard, Catherine L and Sumption, Phil (Eds.) (2015) Fulfilling 100% organic poultry diets: Concentrates. ICOPP Technical Notes, No. 1. Organic Research Centre.

Crawley, Kenny (editor): Smith, Jo; Gerrard, Catherine L. and Sumption, Phil (Eds.) (2015) Fulfilling 100% organic poultry diets: Roughage and foraging from the range. ICOPP Technical Notes, No. 2. Organic Research Centre.

Crawley, K. (editor): Smith, Jo; Gerrard, Catherine L. and Sumption, Phil (Eds.) (2015) Fulfilling 100% organic pig diets: Concentrates. ICOPP Technical Notes, No. 3. Organic Research Centre.

Crawley, Kenny (editor): Smith, Jo; Gerrard, Catherine L and Sumption, Phil (Eds.) (2015) Fulfilling 100% organic pig diets: Feeding roughage and foraging from the range. ICOPP Technical Notes, No. 4. Organic Research Centre.Introduction to ICOPP project leaflet (PDF 1.7MB)

Leach, Katharine; Barker, Zoe; Maggs, Clare; Sedgwick, Anouska; Whay, Helen; Bell, Nick and Main, David (2012) Activities of organic farmers succeeding in reducing lameness in dairy cows. In: Rahmann, Gerold and Godinho, D (Eds.) Agriculture and Forestry Research (362), pp. 143-146.

Organic Farming Technical Guide – Organic poultry production for meat. Steve Merritt, Welsh Poultry Centre; Rebecca Kelly, Organic Research Centre Elm Farm; Simon Moakes, IBERS; Tony Little (Editor). Available in English and Welsh

Institute of Organic Training & Advice: Research Review: Poultry Management. Author Rebecca Kelly, Organic Research Centre, Elm Farm


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