Data can help farmers adapt to ‘massive and sustained’ climate changes

PUBLISHED: 16:41 07 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:41 07 February 2020

Prof Steve Dorling of UEA and Weatherquest speaking at the BBRO BeetTech20 conference at Newmarket Racecourse. Picture: Chris Hill

Prof Steve Dorling of UEA and Weatherquest speaking at the BBRO BeetTech20 conference at Newmarket Racecourse. Picture: Chris Hill


Farmers must act fast to adapt to a rapidly-changing climate – but they were told that increasingly detailed monitoring and forecasting technologies can give their crops the best chance of success.

The challenge of "weather-proofing agriculture" was discussed at the BeetTech20 conference in Newmarket, hosted by the Norwich-based BBRO (British Beet Research Organisation).

Prof Steve Dorling of the University of East Anglia, also chief executive of forecaster Weatherquest, told delegates that 2019 was the seventh wettest autumn since records began in 1862 - part of an unmistakable trend towards wetter winters and drier summers.

He said he was "quite shocked" when he saw some recent figures showing there was substantially less rainfall and 20pc more sunshine in March and April during the last 30 years, compared to the previous 30-year period - although he was not surprised that average temperature had risen by 1C-1.5C.

Technology is monitoring these changes in "unprecedented detail" to support crop modelling, plant breeding and crop management, he said. But he added that rainfall radar figures, "catchment wetness" records and satellite data on sunshine levels need to be combined with the latest high-resolution climate projections to help farmers make decisions on when to plant and harvest their crops.

"These are massive and sustained changes that we need to be aware of so we don't assume that things are like they used to be," he said. "They are not, and all the climate monitoring is showing that.

"Swinging from one extreme to the other is really difficult to manage but going forward it is something we expect to see a lot more of.

"We need to join up the monitoring data with the forecasting to give you the full picture of information that is relevant to your location and your crop."

Dr Simon Bowen, head of knowledge exchange for the BBRO, said evidence indicates that sugar beet is one of the few crops which, if managed carefully, could benefit from the changing climate.

While more frequent and severe summer droughts and greater pest and disease levels could decrease yields by an estimated -10pc, this was outweighed by yield-increasing effects of +15-25pc due to earlier sowing dates, a longer season and faster growing rates, he said. The net result is an estimated yield increase of 5-15pc.

"But it is not going to come to us free," he said. "We need to work to optimise these yield increases."

That would include building soil resilience and developing beneficial traits in new sugar beet varieties - which the BBRO is working towards with trials exploring which varieties could succeed in drought-prone soils, have better resistance to pests and viruses, are able to intercept more light into their canopies, or are more suitable to different harvest dates.

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