Dan Burdett is an organic dairy farmer in mid Sussex. They run a system which is low on inputs and low on outputs, resisting the urge to push the cows to produce too much milk.
Previously the farm grew large areas of arable crops, but now they grow multi-species grass and legume swards with up to 20 varieties of grass, herbs, and deep rooting plants. The cows live indoors from November through to February, eating grass silage. They calve all of their cows outside and rear all of their dairy calves there as well. The cows are milked twice daily in a parlour that can hold 40 cows.
History of the farm
In 1986 after previously working as an assistant farm manager, Dan’s father Jeremy was offered the opportunity to come and work at Cockhaise farm under contract and in partnership with another arable farmer. “The stipulation was he had to bring in 200 cows, so they bought in 200 very cheap cows by hook, crook, and any means necessary, just to get things started.” Inspired by a farming consultant, Dan’s Father Jeremy brought to the farm the self-feed philosophy for low input, low output profitable milk.
After the arable farmer moved away in 1994, Jeremy was offered the opportunity to buy 350 acres, which he did with help from other members of the family, through business expansion, and help from the bank. “So in seven years he went from a contract farmer to owning this farm.”
In 1999 Jeremy converted to organic. He had grown tired of the prescriptive nature of the farming he was doing, Dan said he was the ‘spray guy’ previously, but after going to New Zealand and becoming more interested in clover, he realised he didn’t need to use bagged fertiliser, and that drove him to try organic.
Dan’s move into farming
Dan moved back to the farm in 2010, after previously studying business at university and working in sales and marketing and later project management. After a redundancy package, a year travelling the world, and two years working in travel sales, Dan found himself wanting “to work outside and have my own business” and realised that’s what his dad did. So he spent a year helping his dad on all of his days off, and instantly fell in love with the cows.
He spent the first three years learning the job, as he confesses: “I never went to agricultural college, I knew nothing at all.
“I started an apprenticeship in 2010, and started from scratch. I did a lot of training and a post graduate diploma in organic farming.” Dan also did an Advanced Management course via The Worshipful Company of Farmers, and is currently a Nuffield Scholar, and is an active part of their discussion groups.
“I’ve always been amazed at how open farming can be. That people are prepared to share their successes and their failures – to show you how much it costs them to produce their milk and what they are doing to do that.” Dan has learnt a lot by looking at successful local farmers and taking on their best ideas.
In 2013 his dad decided it would be a good idea to make Dan the contractor at the farm, just as he had been earlier in his career. “I started by buying all the Heifer Calves that were born that year.” He has grown the business from there so now he owns most of the cows. Becoming a contractor has given Dan some independence, making it a stand-alone business which could survive if the farm was to be sold, as Dan explains: “It’s not a generational farm.”
Focusing on dairy
When Dan started contracting, it wasn’t initially focused on only dairy. “At the time we were calving over a 15 week period, and we were fattening beef and we were growing quite a lot of cereals and I took the ideas that I’d seen around me where everyone was specialising. I decided by looking at the accounts that it was the dairy that was driving it, and everything else wasn’t really contributing. We pared back and concentrated on the dairy, and decided that fertility was our number one thing. Lots of the farms that we had been to were calving in a much tighter calving block, and they were having a much better lifestyle.”
Dan switched to this method and within two years they were calving in a six week block, and it worked much better for them. Dan reports that suddenly he found people coming to the farm to ask questions about his system, just as he had been looking to other farmers previously.
Dan has only ever worked within an organic system. He remembers four to five years ago when there was barely any price difference between organic and conventional milk. “People were dropping out (of organics) and we were told we should come out and start growing maize but, the two things that kept us going were that Arla, our co-operative told us that organic was a big part of what they were trying to achieve. It was a big part of their market in Sweden and Denmark and they wanted to replicate that in the UK, and that has since been proven. Currently the only real growth market in supermarkets is organic.”
And the other thing that kept them going was belief.
“You’ve got to believe what you are doing is right. And not just because you’re told by someone that it’s the right thing. It’s got to sit well with you.”
Their belief in organic farming got them through the tougher times and they’ve since had a good five years, Dan says they’d have been ‘kicking themselves’ if they’d followed the advice they’d received and got out of it.
“We started growing herbal leys about five years ago. We were seeing a bit of a decline in grass production. We were farming across too many acres so we were spreading our resources too thin. When we lost a lot of ground, we gained a lot of fertility.”
Dan invested time and research into herbal leys, talking to nutritionists and visiting other farms to see what they were growing: “If we were just growing grass and clover it would be a monoculture. We try and grow different grasses, clovers, herbs, and legumes all in the same mix and we’ve seen the benefit. We’ve seen increased production in our grass leys, in our grazing, and in our conservation cutting – it’s been a real success. We also grow standing hay in the summer, we try to let a lot of our grass grow very tall, flower and go to seed, and then mob graze it. This is the only chance, as a dairy farmer, that we can get our cows into grass, clover, and chicory. As this is six foot tall the cows will trample a lot of it into the ground. This principle of feeding our soil means we’re putting probably more back into it than it is giving us, so we see the benefits longer term.”
They operate a paddock system as Dan says they can grow more grass if they move their cows all the time. They’ve been learning more about how to set up a better infrastructure by fencing fields properly and having mobile water troughs, and they were pleased to be recognised in the final three of Farmers Weekly Grassland Farmer of the Year 2019. By managing the fields better, they’ve noticed that the calves are growing better with less bought in feed: “We feed the cows maybe 300 kilos of food less a year now, and we’ve seen a drop of maybe 200 litres of milk. We’ve seen the benefit of getting the cows out earlier, on-off grazing, even in wet springs we can send them out for an hour, get them back in again and we aren’t doing too much damage to the soil.”
Bore Place Farm
This year they’ve taken on a 20 year contract farming arrangement with Bore Place in Kent, which is another organic dairy farm. They have 220 cows there, predominately autumn calving, with a view to doing something similar to Cockhaise Farm. The milk goes to Arla and Dan is on a McDonald’s contract, where the majority of their milk will go to McDonald’s under a Compassion in World Farming label. To achieve this label they have to undergo lots of checks and audits.
“I’ve no problem with people being Vegan – that’s fine it’s a lifestyle choice” but it’s the misinformation that bothers Dan. “We’ve invited groups onto the farm but their vegan members won’t come, so there is no way in engaging in a conversation, which is fine if they are keeping their views to themselves but, if they are becoming very vocal then that’s difficult if they won’t accept or listen to anything else. I worry about the use of social media with messages that can go out, and things that have been picked up from reports which have been rubbished from years ago are still carted out.
As farmers we have to tell our story. We had a group here two weeks ago and we were separating cows and calves, and we have to show what we do here, that we’ve got nothing to hide, some people might not like it but we’ve got to tell that story because there is so much misinformation going on and really only farmers can tell that message otherwise we are going to be beaten down and we won’t stand a chance.”
“As a person of my generation I am a Remainer. I think now it has been done we probably have to get on with it. But I worry that UK farmers will be left to hang out to dry. In order to attract all these trade deals particularly with the US, and I don’t want to bang on about chlorinated chicken, but in general having been in the US there is a lot of stuff that they are allowed to do there which we are not allowed to do here. It’s not a level playing field. I saw over there beef feed lots where they regularly put antibiotics in the feed. Things that simply aren’t allowed here, but it would come straight in, because the Americans are take it or leave it, you have everything or you have nothing.”
Dan is concerned about the lack of new entrants to the dairy industry: “If I put a job out now, the quality and quantity of the responses is markedly lower than it was a couple of years ago. There are not enough people, we’ve got to make this industry more attractive for people to work in.”
Dan has consciously moved to a five-day week in order to compete with other industries, he also tries to make the job as appealing as possible to the students that come and work at the dairy: “We take a lot of students, and I think it’s really important that we make that role as attractive as possible, as in an ideal world we want them to come knocking on the door when they’ve finished and want to come and work for us.”
Worryingly, Dan has noticed that he’s seeing less and less dairy students coming out of Plumpton College, he notes that it could be because of their facilities which are fully housed. “The cows are miserable so all the students see is misery, so why on earth would they want to work in this industry, so they all want to drive a tractor or have a flock of sheep.”
“The number one challenge even more than veganism, is making sure as an industry we can attract people to work for us.”
With the average age of a farmer in the UK being in their sixties, I ask Dan what he thinks the next 20 years will hold: “I think there will be some consolidation with businesses getting bigger, hopefully there will be more opportunities for smaller farmers too, as I saw in Sweden there is no doubt that smaller farms can be more productive than big farms.”
Passion for farming
Dan is clearly motivated to produce really good quality food, but also identifies the potential for farmers to play a part in tackling the obesity and mental health crisis by getting more people out into the countryside.
“I think farmers in the coming years, with or without legislation, are going to be providing a lot of the environmental and social targets that the government will be looking at.”
“We manage 70% of the country which is enormous, my goal is that we should be both productive and looking after the environment at the same time.”