With rainfall in short supply, farmers should consider exploring alternative sources of water to irrigate their crops says TOM CORFIELD, agricultural partner at Arnolds Keys-Irelands Agricultural.

Eastern Daily Press: Tom Corfield, agricultural partner at Arnolds Keys-Irelands AgriculturalTom Corfield, agricultural partner at Arnolds Keys-Irelands Agricultural (Image: Arnolds Keys-Irelands Agricultural)

Following a dry start to the year, farmers and growers are bracing themselves for a challenging summer.

East Anglia received just 19pc of long-term average rainfall during April and so those with the benefit of abstraction licences have started irrigating to try to prevent early losses.

The Environment Agency has now revised its "irrigation prospects" report, with East Anglia anticipated to receive below-average rainfall in the coming months. As a result, abstraction restrictions are likely, and could be introduced earlier than last year.

"Flexible licensing" was adopted last year allowing groundwater to be traded between neighbours in some parts of the UK. This approach may be available this year but there are concerns on how it will be delivered, given a dry spring.

Since the summer drought last year, farmers have been urged to plan for water shortages and to check that their existing licences are fit for purpose. For those without licences, identifying access to water with other parties and getting arrangements pre-approved could be beneficial, even if it isn't needed at a later date.

The concern is ongoing, and even those who have already taken steps to prepare could benefit from additional measures. Cropping programmes are set well before we know what the weather is going to do, and so it follows that regular and consistent reviews and audits of water availability and investment should be undertaken.

Investment in rain water harvesting systems, such as above-ground or underground storage tanks, could be a start. Funding for items such as rainwater goods, storage tanks and diverters may be available through a Water Capital Grant under Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship, subject to a range of qualification criteria and a cap of £10,000. The deadline for application packs for Water Capital Grants is May 31.

For those with the capital to invest, reservoirs can add value to holdings suitable for growing high-input crops such as potatoes, but only where abstraction licences are available.

Longer-term measures require a focus on the organic content of soil; greater organic content improves water retention in soil and can go a long way in reducing the risk of moisture deficit. On this note, straw for muck agreements could prove increasingly valuable in the coming years. Another consideration might be the use of products that can be incorporated into the topsoil to retain moisture.

The Environment Agency's policy of introducing protective measures to reduce or prevent water abstraction seems unlikely to change. As such, alternative sources of water on holdings for the purpose of irrigation, both in the immediate and longer term, will continue to be of great interest.