Dan Burdett  -  Increasing productivity through increasing diversity on UK dairy farms

McDonald's Restaurants

I am a third generation dairy farmer from West Sussex, milking 300 organic cows on a simple autumn calving system.  Although I grew up on a dairy farm and loved driving tractors, my life was destined to be lived in the urban jungle.  At 18 I escaped the countryside and studied Business Studies at the University of Derby.  For about 11 years I thought nothing of farming, instead focusing on a career in sales and marketing.  After university I took 6 months out to complete a trip to Central America to work, learn and teach.  This was followed by a graduate training scheme at London Electricity (now EDF Energy), which took me into the far reaches of the company, giving me a great overview of the corporate world.

I left there after 3 years and took my second gap year, this time with Emma, and we were fortunate enough to travel through Asia, New Zealand and South America for 11 months in 2004.  It was when I returned from this trip that I started to question my direction of travel in life.  I mulled this over for nearly 3 years whilst working for the travel company Trailfinders before realising that my desire to run my own business could best be fulfilled back on the family farm.  Aged 30, Emma and I came to the farm and we have never looked back.  After learning the ropes for 4 years, whilst also completing a postgraduate diploma in organic farming at SAC, I set up my own contract farming company to run the dairy herd.  5 years on and I own 240 cows and 200 youngstock on a thriving farm with a fantastic team of staff alongside me.

I’m also lucky enough to have completed the Worshipful Company of Farmers Advanced Management Course in 2014, where I was taken to pieces and put back together again by a great cohort of other farmers and John Alliston.

Emma and I now have 3 amazing and very active children, Lizzie (10), Molly (7) and Tom (5).  I am incredibly grateful to Emma for supporting me throughout my journey in farming and for backing me to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship.

I am grateful to McDonalds Restaurants for the opportunity to become a Nuffield scholar, something I’ve wanted to do for many years.  I hope that by becoming a scholar, I’m able to enhance our triple bottom line (profit, environment, social) and to influence change within the industry.

Over the past 10 years I have taken our farm from one of mixed enterprises (beef, arable and dairy) to that of a dairy specialist.  This has followed the pattern set through our local discussion group and that of much of the wider industry.  Whilst this has allowed us to expand the herd and capitalise on good milk prices, my feeling is that our future success will come by embracing diversity and looking at our triple bottom line, rather than just the profit element.

This has already started at home with growing a far more diverse range of grasses, herbs and legumes in our grazing leys and we have seen a tremendous yield response as a result.  I would therefore like to meet with farmers who are integrating biodiversity and other livestock into their dairy farming systems.  Of particular relevance is where these methods of farming have achieved an increase in overall productivity.

There are now many small scale CSA (community supported agriculture) farms around the UK and particularly in North America, using permaculture and regenerative agriculture practices to produce more per hectare than a conventional farm.  I want to visit some of these to understand how they could integrate with a dairy system.  By visiting farms where they are already integrating the two, I would like to see what the challenges have been and also to see where the symbiosis between enterprises has lifted overall productivity.

Too often when farms diversify they can end up being stretched too far and are not able to capitalise on the opportunities.  It is my belief that by bringing in the right people, with the right skillset and passion, that diversification can work alongside having a good work-life balance.