From drought to deluge - farms must learn to deal with weather extremes
- Credit: William Morfoot Ltd
The severity – and timing – of recent autumn downpours has illustrated the impact of a changing climate on farms and underlined the importance of long-term investment in land drainage, said industry experts.
After the exceptionally dry spring and hot summer had already hit cereal yields, East Anglian growers then struggled with potato harvesting and wheat planting during autumn deluges which fell during a critical window in the farming calendar.
Many parts of the UK received their average October rainfall within the first two weeks of a month which also included the wettest day on record for UK-wide rainfall, when enough rain fell on October 3 to fill Loch Ness.
In Mid Norfolk, more than 150mm of rainfall was recorded between September 23 and October 11 – a quarter of the average annual rainfall for the area in just 19 days.
Tim Sisson, managing director of drainage specialists William Morfoot, base at Shipdham near Dereham, said the cumulative totals were a “near carbon copy” of rainfall events during the same period in autumn 2019, which also bogged down harvesting and drilling operations at this crucial time of year.
“A lot of growers have commented that the autumn of 2020 has produced worse conditions than 2019 in terms of the volume and frequency of the rainfall,” he said. “This year, many crops which have been drilled have seen seeds literally rot in the ground owing to saturated soils.
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“Pressures from weeds which thrive in the wet cool conditions have become more pronounced. This is especially true of blackgrass which thrives in saturated wet soils.
“Many farms have not invested in land drainage since grant aid was abolished for land drainage in 1981. This means that there are a lot of very tired and old drainage schemes out in the fields at present which are no longer working effectively. Ageing drainage systems, the removal of BPS (Basic Payment Scheme subsidies from the EU), the increase in rainfall, and the timing of the rainfall events have all meant that land drainage as a tool to improve margins on progressive arable farms has never been more important.
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“Land drainage is a long term investment which typically delivers between 25-35pc uplift in average yield on fields where schemes are installed. The yield uplift is more significant in seasons like the autumns of 2019 and 2020 when the presence of land drains can mean the difference between harvesting a crop of potatoes, or not, or drilling a farm with winter wheat, or not.”
READ MORE: ‘We had 20pc of our annual rainfall in five days’ - farmers’ concerns amid autumn delugesOne farmer who has invested heavily in drainage is Tom Dye, managing director of Albanwise Farming, which farms more than 5,000ha of arable land on estates in west and north Norfolk.
He said it had become increasingly important to allow saturated soils to recover more rapidly, increasing the working window for arable operations and improving the yield potential of the crop.
“The ‘new norm’ is that the climate has changed,” he said. “Over the 13 years I have been farming in north Norfolk the management decisions a farm manager has to take are much greater, and the working windows are definitely narrower now because of the climate. Now you may only have two or three days to drill a field, and if you are waiting for the field to drain of water you have missed the chance to establish the crop in ideal conditions.
“We are all the while identifying our weakest points on the land, anything from a spring that has manifested itself, or wet patches in fields where rain accumulates, or unavoidable areas of compaction.
“I have got an example where we drained 50pc of a field back in 2011, it was a 7.5ha field of good land. Half the field was very tricky before we did the drainage. It was yielding 8.5t/ha, but when we drained that field it yielded 11t/ha. That was quite an extreme example.
“I would say it is a false economy not consider it. It is a 30-40 year investment. People are putting infrastructure onto their farms and building grain stores and reservoirs and not batting an eyelid, but the same people don’t seem to be prepared to consider land drainage.
“We cannot afford not to get this right and you must be prepared to invest in your asset and maximise your asset. You get the ability to work the land when you need to, and the whole biology of the soil works better and its yield potential will increase.
“There is no grant funding for it. There was in the 60s and 70s, but a lot of schemes done over that period are now coming to the end of their life. I would say this is one of those investments you should not need a grant to do. I think it gives payback in its own right.”
MANAGING RISKS IN TIMES OF SCARCITY
While prolonged rainfall has caused problems this autumn, East Anglian farmers must also prepare for the opposite problem of increased droughts in spring and summer says Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
“As evidence of a changing climate points towards the likelihood of more frequent and more extreme dry weather, farmers are increasingly thinking about how to prepare their businesses to manage these risks,” he said. “In particular, we will all have to grapple with the issue of who gets the water when there is not enough to meet everyone’s needs.
“During recent dry weather periods, farmers who rely on water from abstracted sources such as rivers and boreholes have been constrained in their activities, while public water supplies have been maintained without interruption.
READ MORE: Incomes fall by £68,000 at model farm after ‘perfect storm’ hits harvest“Farmers are doing what they can to make the most of water, including capturing rainwater from farm building roofs, using soil moisture probes to fine-tune irrigation scheduling, and investing in on-farm storage. Yet despite this, the regulatory outlook for irrigation licences looks daunting. Holders of time-limited licences face the prospect of removal of the ‘headroom’ held in reserve for dry years. The Environment Agency suggests these measures may be necessary to avoid the risk of future deterioration in water bodies.
“It’s clear that the future ability of farmers to grow our food could be compromised by the regulatory response to droughts, as well as dry weather events themselves.
“In response to water-scarcity pressures faced by agriculture, Defra and its family of agencies are increasingly focusing on multi-sector regional water plans as a solution, albeit recognising that difficult trade-offs will be necessary when insufficient water is available to meet all needs. The NFU is strongly committed to the national water planning framework and is actively involved in developing the regional water plan overseen by Water Resources East.
“But it is becoming increasingly clear that regional plans will not provide the means to replace water potentially lost to agriculture from current abstracted sources unless there is a formal commitment to give water for food production the priority it deserves.”