Farm animals are an important an integrated part of most organic farms. They make valuable contributions to the productivity and sustainability of organic agricultural systems. In addition to this strong economic bond between humans and animals in organic farming, there also is a moral (and sometimes emotional) bond to animals as sentient and fellow beings on this planet. This imposes a responsibility on humans for the welfare of farm animals. However, the development of organic animal husbandry has been slower than the organic plant production. There are several reasons for this, historical and philosophical as well as the fact that research on animal production often is more expensive and difficult to carry out compared to crop research. However, organic animal research has increased considerably in several European countries lately and resulting from this, improved efficiency and productivity can be expected in organic animal production, as well as better animal welfare.
There is a big interest in organic farming in Europe, both among politicians, consumers and farmers. Organic agriculture is subsidized by the EU, and the Commission is currently working on an Action Plan for organic food and agriculture. Animals are an important part of most organic farms and research to develop better organic systems is now performed in many European countries. Thus we can expect organic animal production to increase during the years to come. At the same time there are challenges and dilemmas that the organic movement and organic farmers must face and solve to improve animal production and to maintain credibility and trust among consumers, for example in relation to animal welfare.
In organic farming, agriculture is often referred to as an agroecosystem. An agroecosystem is a community of plants and animal interaction with their physical and chemical environments that have been modified by people to produce feed, fibers and other products for human consumption and processing. The goal of organic farming is to design a quilt of agroecosystems within a landscape unit, each mimicking the structure and function of local, natural ecosystems, thus acquiring their resilience and sustainability. Ideally, the organic farmer manipulates the natural ecosystem to achieve sustainable production, using an understanding of ecological relationships while trying to minimize the use of external inputs and harm to the environment.
Although it is possible to create agroecosystems without farm animal, animal provide substantial advantages for system productivity and sustainability. For example, farm animal have an important role in processing biomass and recycling nutrients. Organic farming systems with herbivores are generally more productive than those without them. The animals can fill trophic niches that otherwise would not be utilized, for example marginal lands otherwise unsuitable for agriculture. However, in order to create sustainable agroecosystems, the animal component must meet certain requirements:-
1. The selection of species and breeds must be adapted to crop production suitable for the area, to available resources on the farm or in the region, and to local agro-climatic conditions.
2. The number of animals must be balanced in relation to the possible crop production and available resources.
3. Rearing systems must be designed to avoid harming the environment and to minimize the use of fossil energy.
Ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, have a particularly important role in agroecosystems since they process leguminous forage plants. These are the backbone of organic crop production because of their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. To obtain sufficient nitrogen in an organic crop rotation, about one-third of the crops should be legumes. In practice this means that organic animal production must be based on ruminants (and that these are fed like ruminants). In contrast, monogastric animal, such as pig and poultry, require high quality protein in their diets. These animals can be considered as competing with humans for food, at least to the extent they use protein sources suitable for direct human consumption. Thus, it is sometimes argued that monogastric animals should be considered marginal in organic farming, primarily to be fed on agricultural wastes. They also can contribute to the agroecosystem by producing useful services, such as biological weed or pest control.
Development approaches for organic animal production in developing countries has to be based on realistic and practical situations. First, one must recognize the limitation and complexities of export market for animal products, while there exists greater market opportunities for organic animal products locally, for instance indigenous chicken meat and eggs. Practical approaches for organic farming should be based on and developed from locally existing animal production systems which already have close resemblance to prescribed organic practices, such as those mentioned earlier for ruminant and indigenous chicken production. The local standards and guidelines for organic animal farming ought to be initially considered and developed from such existing animal husbandry practices. Further development of such standards will be a continuous process based on practical experiences gained from production, processing, and marketing of the resulted organic animal products.
The Success of the promotion of organic animal farming at national level will depend on many important factors including government policies and legislative supports, socio-economic infrastructure, farm training and extension as well as other technical supports.