The beginning of a new journey

Dan Burdett is back and on a new adventure reporting on farms making change happen in the UK

Life is full of things you feel you should be doing, but often obstacles appear in the way long enough to keep them from happening. And so it has been with writing my regular blog for Indie Farmer. After writing for about a year in the life here at Cockhaise Farm I felt that I didn’t want to simply repeat myself, as surely every year is the same. After working in agriculture for the last 11 years I should know better than that, and the intervening period has proven that in spades!

One of the biggest decisions I have made is to have my young stock reared on someone else’s farm to allow me to increase the size of the herd here from 240 to 300 cows. The chance of finding another organic farm locally that would be able to rear them in the same conditions as here was always going to be a slim one, so when the opportunity arose I had to grab it. So for the last 2 years we have waved goodbye to our 6 month old calves as they travel the 8 miles to Bolney.

Heifers enjoying life in Bolney

The step up in cow numbers hasn’t been without its challenges though and it still remains to be seen whether or not this is the right decision for the business. With the increase in young animals coming into the herd we have seen a drop in the yield overall as they tend to produce less milk. There is also more stress on the farm’s main resource, grass. The summer of 2018 put an enormous stress on the system and meant that we had our work cut out to feed the cows as we would’ve liked. As farmers we should be building in more resilience into our systems in order to cope with the extremes of weather that we are now seeing. When planning for the future we have to make a call on whether we think patterns of weather seen last year are irregular, in which case we just take the occasional hit, or going to happen more often, in which case we need to scale back the number of animals on the farm.

At the end of October 2017 we also experienced the lows on the farm when Luke, my right hand man, was involved in a series road accident. The loss of Luke for those 5 months was a huge blow but fortunately he is built of tough stuff and defied all medical expectations to be back for the spring. The rest of the team rallied around amazingly and we made it through just about in one piece.

One of the main reasons for reviving the blog is because I am now starting out on the latest journey in my farming life. I’ve been awarded a scholarship from the Nuffield Farming Trust, who are looking to lead positive change in UK agriculture by providing a bursary towards travel around the world to visit the best farmers and growers and bring that inspiration back home.

The title of my report is “Making change happen in UK agriculture”. I feel that as an industry we are about to embark on a period of great change for a number of reasons . With Brexit comes a great deal of uncertainty within farming as subsidies are being phased out and the threat of trade tariffs looms large over many sectors, not least beef and sheep, who will suffer greatly as a result. We are under pressure from the new food movements but also to deliver ever cheaper food.

There are lots of inspiring ideas out there for farmers to look at but many never make that change happen, which can occur for a number of reasons, including resistance to change, family and peer group pressure, financial uncertainty and lack of industry support. I am going to visit some of those farmers that have been able to change the way they farm in order to find out how they managed this process.

One of my first visits was to see David Finley at his farm in Ayrshire. The family run the Cream of Galloway ice cream business and so have a long history of adding value to their produce. The reason for visiting David was to talk to him about his move into keeping cows with their calves for 5 months, rather than removing them shortly after birth. This is counter to the vast majority of the dairy industry and he has encountered many challenges.

Calves living amongst the cows

These have included many health issues with the calves when they first tried it six years ago which, caused them to abandon the plans for a year. The second time around they have worked really hard to maintain the health of both mother and calf and this has paid huge dividends. It also took a year or so to settle the cows into the system, but they are now very laidback. They have also suffered a large drop in their income as the calves are drinking a huge percentage of the milk. In order to counter this they are developing a market for rose veal, with product going to Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Without this, the system begins to look very marginal.

He has had enormous support from his staff and this has been vital as he has found the local farming community to be fairly unsupportive of the change in system. This is something that I have already found to be a key consideration as to the success or otherwise of making a change work.

Over the next 18 months I hope to be able to keep Indie Farmer readers up to date with my travels and findings and welcome any thoughts you may have.