Organic and regenerative management are key to the on-going success of one Sussex-based dairy unit. We find out more about the latest ideas and innovations taking the business forward.
TEXT ALIX MORLEY
Creating a resilient and sustainable business is more than just a passion for Dan Burdett – it is a core belief that’s driving developments at Cockhaise Farm in Sussex.
Dan’s father Jeremy paved the way for innovation, converting the farm to organic production in 1999. Inspired by a trip to New Zealand, coupled with a frustration about ‘prescriptive agriculture’, there was clear business sense behind the decision, with significant financial rewards.
These business skills are still evident in the management of both the farm and the herd today. Returning to farming 12 years ago, Dan brought with him the skills and knowledge from a career in sales and marketing in London. Now, as part of AHDB’s Strategic Dairy Farm programme, he’s looking forward to inviting producers and dairy experts to Cockhaise, based near Haywards Heath, to share knowledge and learn from the experience of others. The Burdett family now farm 300 hectares with a flexible grazing platform of between 75 and 120 hectares, depending on the time of year and grass growth. The autumn-calving 240-cow herd achieves a tight block, with 95% of cows calving within a six-week window.
The herd is averaging 6,000 litres of milk per cow per year, at 4.4% butterfat and 3.4% protein, which is sold to Arla. With a focus on maximising yield from forage, Dan aims to increase this to 6,500 litres. “In a typical year cows graze from the middle of February through to the end of October. The winter ration comprises self-feed silage, predominantly grass, with some whole-crop silage. Concentrate is fed through the parlour, at rates of up to 7kg per head, according to yield, during the winter,” he says.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Dan continues to bring innovation to the farm. While he would not describe himself as a regenerative farmer, he is keen to adopt many of these practices. “Regenerative agriculture is a broad-brush approach to farming. It is about looking at improving soil health, the lives of the people around the farm, and the economics of the business,” explains Dan.
“We want to create healthier soil, with a more vibrant eco-system. And we want to build more resilience into the grazing system. The water that passes through the farm comes out a lot cleaner, and we’ve a higher level of ecology with biodiversity.” Dan recently completed a Nuffield Scholarship on this topic, and he’s been inspired by the travelling opportunities it gave him. “The people I met were farming in a way they wanted to farm – in a way they believed was right. They didn’t want to be constricted by being organic, and they were willing to try new things – and to fail. It’s inspirational when you meet people like that.”
His approach recognises the importance of both the cows and the land. This year, they have planted silvopasture, integrating trees and forage with grazing animals.
“We planted trees on a 1.5-hectare paddock in February. We used cactus guards to protect them from stock. Many people would fence them off and plant them in ‘lanes’, but cows tend to walk up and down fence lines so this would end up creating highways,” Dan explains.
“Soil is bacterially driven and we want to create more mycorrhizal fungi networks, a sort of superhighway under the soil. The trees will help with this and also create shade and shelter for cows, as well as offering them something to browse on.” Ultimately, this will help increase the resilience of the land grazed by the herd. “If it becomes more robust and grows through a drought, we have grass where we may not otherwise have had it. If we don’t have to reseed it as often, we don’t have to plough it. It also offers cows the opportunity to eat plants other than ryegrass. It’s about looking at the system as a whole.”
This is a natural progression for Dan after his decision to adopt herbal leys seven years ago. “Nothing in nature exists in a monoculture. Root systems interact and variety helps to stimulate more resilience and feed soil microorganisms. Sometimes cows go into these leys and the milk might take a bit of a hit, depending on the composition of the leys. But we found we were growing more grass and we had more in front of the cows. Anything we re-seed now goes into a herbal ley.”
His team are at the heart of the dairy business model and Dan is passionate about providing them with opportunities while ensuring overall sustainability. Following a regenerative approach can take his attention away from the day-to-day running of the herd and dairy business, so it is important he has the right people in place.
“I’ve learnt that I can’t do everything. I enjoy milking the cows, but I know if I’m around too much I’m just going to get overly involved. I don’t tell the team which cows to foot trim, I don’t choose the bulls. I set up the basic structure of how they should work and I monitor what they are doing. People thrive in the right environment,” he says.
“I don’t want to do anything I can’t afford to lose money on, so we start small scale. I want to do it in a way where I can walk away from it and I haven’t lost anything.” For those interested in regenerative agriculture, Dan’s advice is simple. “Just be curious. Decide what it is you want to do and why you are doing it. Write it down, talk to your family and staff about it, and bring someone along with you on that journey.”