Organic Dairy Farmer Dan Burdett joins us as a new regular contributor sharing his experiences of life at Cockhaise Farm in West Sussex, building soil fertility and creating a vibrant ecosystem..
Having grown up on farms you may think that becoming a farmer was as natural to me as pigs in mud, but my route back to the farm took a rather longer course.
As a young boy all I wanted was to drive tractors and spent most of my free time gazing in awe at them as they drove over our farm all summer long. But then came the teenage years, where living remotely from your friends can have many drawbacks, and I soon longed for a different life as far from the farm as I could get!
“One of the really great things about organic farming is that you are always learning, with very little of the prescriptive advice that conventional farming can offer.”
The route took in university in Derby, work in Leicester, volunteer work in Central America, 6 years working in Sales and Marketing in London and then another year abroad. It was the time spent abroad with my wife that made me reconsider our direction in life, and after much deliberation I swallowed my pride and decided that farming was indeed in the blood. It was time to rebuild the bridges back to the home farm in West Sussex, trying to convince my Dad that this wasn’t just another great dream of mine.
8 years, 3 children and many hundreds of cows and calves later, I wanted to try and describe life on a larger-scale farm, where we care as much for 240 cows as we would for 24 and work hard to improve the life at all levels of the food chain here.
Here I am with Lizzie and Molly, my eldest kids. I love nothing better than spending time with them all in this beautiful part of the world.
We are an organic dairy farm in the heart of Mid-Sussex. There are 240 cows here, who all have their calves between mid-August and Mid October, the craziest time of year where each day brings with it many new mouths to feed and challenges to tackle. We calve all of our cows outside and rear all of our female dairy calves there as well. We believe that this gives the calf the best start to life, with much less illness shown than calves which are reared inside.
We milk our cows twice as day in a parlour that can hold 40 cows at a time. This means they can all be milked in less than 2 hours, which allows us more time in the day ensuring they’re well fed and looked after.
Our herdsman Luke is in charge of making sure the cows are well looked after and plays a vital role in the running of the farm.
We run a system here which is low on inputs and low on outputs, where we’re not pushing the cows to produce too much milk. Instead we like to see them live as long as possible in a low stress environment. We’d love to see them grazing in the fields all year round, but with such a seasonal climate this wouldn’t do the cows or the ground very much good. For that reason they will live indoors from November through to February, eating grass silage. The winter can often drag as it involves a lot of routine work, where each day can seem like the last. Therefore, our favourite day of the year is when we turn the cows back out to start eating the grass again, although sometimes it can become a bit too wet!
For many years we grew a large area of arable crops such as wheat, oats and beans, but now our farm is mainly growing grass. Because of this we feel that a monoculture has started to occur and wanted to bring some diversity back into the fields to benefit both the soil and the cow. For that reason we are now growing multi-species grass and legume swards, with up to 20 varieties of grass, herb and many deep rooting plants. These plants should help to provide the variation that we require to help build soil organic matter which will ultimately enhance the productivity and durability of the farm.
We love to open our farm up to the public whenever we can and are always happy to show anyone around who is keen to find out a little bit more about how our farm works. Open Farm Sunday is always a highlight for us, with hundreds of people milling around the farm, watching the cows being milked, taking a farm tour or sampling food and drink produced by our fantastic local producers. I’m especially keen on getting school kids involved here as I believe it’s essential that they grow up knowing how and where their food is produced.
One of the really great things about organic farming is that you are always learning, with very little of the prescriptive advice that conventional farming can offer. We are now looking at increasing the life of our soils through foliar feeding with home-made bio-fertiliser, made using the ash from trees on our farm.
I hope you enjoyed reading and look forward to bringing our farm to life on a regular basis.