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'We need some rain desperately' - Livestock farmers fear an animal feed crisis as heatwave stunts grass growth

PUBLISHED: 16:46 24 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:52 26 July 2018

Drought-affected pasture at Croxton Farm near Fakenham. Left: Pictured in early June. Right: Late July. Pictures by Harry Runciman.

Drought-affected pasture at Croxton Farm near Fakenham. Left: Pictured in early June. Right: Late July. Pictures by Harry Runciman.

Harry Runciman

East Anglia's livestock farmers have raised fears of a winter feed crisis as the summer heatwave stunts the growth of grass in parched pastures.

Farmer James Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm, pictured in May before the drought. Picture: Ian BurtFarmer James Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm, pictured in May before the drought. Picture: Ian Burt

After weeks of scorching weather with negligible rainfall, grass growth has ground to a halt, forcing farmers to dip into animal food stores normally reserved for the winter months.

That has put extra pressure on supplies of feed and bedding straw which were already stretched following the cold, wet spring, when grass also grew slowly, keeping cattle in their winter sheds for longer than usual.

James Runciman, who has a 350-head herd of pedigree Aberdeen Angus and Simmental cattle at Croxton near Fakenham, is a member of the National Farmers’ Union’s regional livestock board.

“Grass has just not grown for weeks and weeks,” he said. “We are feeding what would be winter forage now to keep animals fed. We need some rain desperately.

Some of the cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian BurtSome of the cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian Burt

“We are on parched brown fields, which are crunchy underfoot. There is nothing there to eat and we are doing everything we can to keep these animals fed and watered. Everyone has got animal welfare at the front of their minds. We have got to make sure they have access to shade and plenty of water.

“There is no sign of improvement and even if it rains now the grass will take several weeks to grow again.

“It is going to rain eventually, and I am ready to plant my forage crops, it is just a question of when. Other people are not as fortunate as me to have access to arable land – I am not sure what they will do.”

Mr Runciman said although alternatives to traditional grass, hay and silage would be available, farmers may need to work hard to locate a food supply later in the year – and could need the help of their arable counterparts.

He said: “There are alternatives to the normal feeds – if you can get hold of them – but the digesters [anaerobic digestion energy plants] are hoovering up the available feed, which is not helpful. They take a lot of the sugar beet pulp over the winter, and vast areas of maize are going to digesters which could be used for food.

“You have to trawl through the internet to see what is available, even if it is spent grain from a brewery.

“Farmers may be able to buy straw and treat it with ammonia to make it more digestible and convert it into the same feed quality as hay. But they need access to good quality straw.

“Livestock farmers need to talk to arable farmers to ask if they can help them out by getting them some straw, letting them make hay on their margins, or if they can plant a forage crop and let someone have access to graze it before the winter.

“I don’t know where the breaking point will be. It will rain at some point and everyone needs a Plan B until then.”

• The NFU has recently re-opened its Fodder Bank, a service which allows farmers to find cattle feed and animal bedding during extreme weather events – helped by fellow farmers who have a surplus to sell. For more details, see the NFU website.

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