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Dairy farm with regenerative aspirations

Dan Burdett hopes to learn from others and share his vision for balancing efficiency with profitability during his three-year stint as part of AHDB’s strategic dairy farm programme.

After working off the family farm for a number of years, Dan Burdett returned to Cockhaise Farm, Sussex, in 2008 to follow his father’s footsteps and take over the dairy business.

 

In 2013 he entered into a contract farming agreement with his father, Jeremy, as the landowner and now owns the majority of cows in the herd.

 

Mr Burdett says: “I would encourage anyone to go and work away from the business for someone else, to know what it feels like to be an employee. I think a lot of farmers come into the family business having only worked for their dad.”

 

Cockhaise Farm has held an organic status since 2001 and Mr Burdett believes this contributes towards his ethos of regenerative agriculture, which goes beyond sustainability and also takes into account the social and economic impact of the farm business.

 

On returning to the farm Mr Burdett has been heavily involved in local discussion groups and is always keen to benchmark his performance against other similar businesses. He says entry into the strategic farms programme is an extension of the work he has done within these discussion groups.

 

“I know how much we have benefitted from learning from others over the years and also as we have improved we have had a lot of people visit us. I want to carry on that interaction with other farmers, we are by no means perfect, we have a lot of things we are still trying to work on.”

 

Irish Holsteins

 

Historically Mr Burdett’s father had cross-bred using Swedish and Norwegian Red, Montbelliarde and Kiwi cross bulls. However over the last five years he says he has tried to simplify the breeding by using predominantly Irish Holstein genetics with high economic breeding index (EBI) values. Milk is sold to Arla and goes to McDonald’s.

 

He says: “We are looking for an animal of 550kg producing high weights of fat and protein, so we can get them out grazing on the shoulders of the season without it impacting them too much. We also want plenty of capacity so they can eat lots of grass, good udder type and sound feet.”

 

Now milking 294 cows, Mr Burdett hopes to settle at about 250-260 but is currently faced with TB restrictions. The average yield is just under 6,000 litres at 4.4 per cent fat and 3.5 per cent protein but he says as numbers have risen from 220 cows the milk yield has dropped.

 

“Our replacement rate has increased and with more heifers coming into the herd yield has dropped. Four years ago we were at about 6,500 litres but we were feeding more concentrate. We are now feeding 1.2 tonnes concentrate per animal/year which is about 0.3 tonnes less.”

 

One of the biggest challenges facing the farm is the price of organic bought-in protein. The price differential between organic and non-organic feed means the cost of production for organic milk can be up to 10p per litre more than conventional. Mr Burdett recognises this is one area he must make improvements and aims to improve the protein content of silage with red clover and moving towards a multi-cut silage system, he has also been experimenting with growing lucerne.

 

Milk from forage

 

He says: “Our overall goal is to get more milk from forage, as we get more maturity in the herd I am hoping we will start to recover that milk yield figures to go back over 6,000 litres.”

 

In recent years Mr Burdett has introduced herbal leys or multiple species leys to the farm. He says this has helped with the drought tolerance of the forage and increased the yield of much of the pasture. Grass is measured using a plate meter and demand is calculated using Agrinet software.

 

He says: “We shut up a lot of the farm in mid-May to grow standing hay, we strip graze tall older stemmy grass, which is high in dry matter but low in quality to prevent dry cows putting on too much condition before calving. By grazing standing hay, the grass is putting down deeper roots and by letting the grass go to seed it helps to reseed itself improving the longevity of the ley.”

 

The herd begins calving on August 24 and Mr Burdett says in 2013 the calving period lasted up to 15 weeks. However he says by focusing on a few key variables and speaking to people in his discussion group they were able to calve a sufficient number of cows within the first six weeks. Any which fall outside this period are sold with the aim of keeping the calving pattern tight.

 

“Calves are reared outside from birth. Heifer calves are trained to the teat and run in groups of 40 on the trailed feeder and are given six to seven litres of milk per day. Once the youngest in the group is four weeks old they go on to a four litre feed once a day with good grazing and up to two kilos of feed.”

 

Self-feed silage

 

All the silage is fed on a self-feed basis when the cows are inside over the winter, so once calves are weaned they are loose housed and trained to self-feed. Mr Burdett says this is a great advantage so they do not face the pressure when put onto a self-feed system as bulling heifers or once they have calved.

 

Mr Burdett says: “Calf rearing is where I am experimenting the most, we used to set stock a lot of calves and I have learnt to use electric fences a lot better and they are now on daily moves. Calves are my number one priority and they should be getting the best feed on the farm. It is a key driver for me that we make the most out of them.”

 

Going forwards, Mr Burdett aims to introduce silvopasture to the farm, which involves planting trees within paddocks rather than round the perimeter. He says this will provide shelter, improve the soil structure and provide good grass growing conditions. There is also the possibility of introducing an additional revenue stream dependent on the type of trees which are planted.

Farm facts

  • 303 hectares (750 acres), 141ha (350 acres) of which is owned and the remainder is farmed on contract or annual license
  • Average age at first calving is 24 months old
  • For the last four years heifers have been contract reared off the farm, but this came to an end in April and will be managed in-house going forwards
  • The farm is also part of AHDB’s forage for knowledge programme which is another way of benchmarking performance

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