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Farmers are feeling the heat in the summer of 2018

A tractor driver working on a parched field at Colney. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

A tractor driver working on a parched field at Colney. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

As the nation swelters in soaring summer temperatures, National Farmers’ Union deputy president GUY SMITH looks at how farmers have been coping with the heatwave.

Guy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers' UnionGuy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union

As the UK continues to bask in some of the hottest weather we’ve seen in years, farmers are comparing how this sweltering spell measures up to past heatwaves such as the summer of 1976.

Of course we’re used to dealing with the challenges extreme weather can pose but this year has been unusual - from an extremely wet winter and spring, to a period where there has been very little rainfall in some areas, including my own county of Essex. This is another example of the pressures farmers are facing at this time.

Of course it’s a mixed blessing for some of us who are making hay as it’s been a vintage season. There’s an old saying ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and farmers have been making the most of that.

But as combines start to roll it does look as if yields on cereal crops will be smaller, although it’s still way too early to say how much smaller it will be.

Elsewhere, the constant almost desert-like conditions are starting to bite and grass is becoming scorched and turning brown when it should be a luxurious green. That represents bad news for livestock and dairy farmers who are now starting to dip in to their fodder supplies that they keep for the winter months.

The heat is also having an effect on straw which isn’t growing and crops are short – this off the back of a poor straw season last year.

The NFU has launched its Fodder Bank in a bid to help. This is a free service that allows our members to find cattle feed and animal bedding for their farms - or lets them sell any surplus. It will remain open for as long as necessary.

Although fruit growers are reporting bumper crops, the continued spell of dry and hot weather could cause them problems as well. On farm reservoirs, that are used for irrigating the crops, were nice and full due to the wet winter and spring but some of those reservoirs are now starting to run dry.

The comparison being made by some of the more seasoned farmers is that this feels like 1976, when the country also experienced a long run of hot, dry weather.

A key difference is the fact the summer of ‘76 came on the back of a period of dry weather over many months previously. In contrast, this year we had a wet winter and spring. It’s reassuring to see trees looking remarkably green, evidencing they have their feet in water deep in the sub-soil.

Similarly farmers on clay soils have been impressed by how winter sown crops of wheat, barley and oilseed rape have held up remarkably well, considering the adverse growing conditions.

Naturally, this kind of weather brings with it an increased risk of wildfires, such as the ones we’ve seen breaking out in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. There is always a risk of fire on farms but high temperatures and a lack of rain make the risk greater. We would urge everyone who is out and about enjoying the British countryside to act responsibly and ensure cigarettes and barbecues are put out properly.

Sky lanterns also pose a huge threat. They make look pretty, but the frames can kill or harm farm animals and the lit candles are a major fire risk to fields of crops and buildings. Please don’t use them.

With the heatwave poised to continue for at least the next few weeks, farmers are continuing to work hard to ensure business carries on as usual.

Farming is the bedrock of the largest manufacturing sector, food and drink, which contributes £111bn to the country’s economy and provides 3.8m jobs.

Despite the challenges the weather is throwing at us, we will keep on caring for the environment and producing the food that feeds our nation - quality, safe, traceable food for everyone.

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