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Heatwave causes short and long term production worries for UK farmers

As the UK continues to swelter in the heatwave, Alex Black asks AHDB what the effects will be on agriculture.


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Heatwave causes short and long term production worries

Drought following a wet spring was causing concerns across the industry, with farmers worried about forage availability, yields and quality of crops and milk production.

 

Phil Bicknell, AHDB market intelligence director, said adapting to the weather was ‘part of the day job’ for farmers, but at times of extreme weather, decisions were tougher with more severe and longer lasting impacts.

 

Farmers were bringing cattle to market sooner, using winter stocks of feed, and it could impact arable farmers planning for their next rotation.

 

Mr Bicknell said: “We have emerged from a wet, long and challenging winter. We now find ourselves in a prolonged dry and warm spell, which is creating different challenges for different sectors.”

 

Farmers also needed to keep in mind the long-term trends towards warmer and more extreme weather in the UK, with annual average temperatures rising since the 1980s.

 

While farmers could not control the weather, they had proved their resilience ‘time and time again’ and would now be evaluating the impact of higher costs or reduced yields and having realistic conversations with customers about production and availability.

 

Resilience

 

Mr Bicknell said: “In the past, we have seen practical solutions over specifications or delivery schedules emerge as a result.”

 

Mr Bicknell explored the impact of the weather across the industry.


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Dairy

While there had not yet been a significant impact on milk volumes, farmers were drying cows off early and sending barren cows, spare youngstock and poorer milkers to market in an effort to cut feed costs.

 

The lack of forage left farmers with the options of grazing paddocks kept aside for silage making, feeding silage already in the clamp or buying-in feed.

 

Read more: Dairy farmer Abi Reader speaks about the setbacks on farm

 

Mr Bicknell said: “The first would be the preferred option, because it is lower cost, but this and the second option will both mean less silage in the clamp ready for winter.

 

“In addition, some farmers were forced to use silage through March because of wet ground conditions. This means silage stocks are already likely to be low, and continuing to come under pressure.”

 

The last severe drought in August 1995 took an estimated 15 million litres from volumes with the estimated additional concentrate used equating to an average of 0.8ppl in today’s prices.

 

Unless significant rainfall was seen over the coming weeks, dropping volumes could lead to increasing spot prices and milk being diverted away from cheese and butter production to protect volumes to the liquid market.

 

Over the longer term, this would lead to increasing financial pressure, rising cheese and butter prices and hit dairy herd fertility going forward.

Beef cattle

 

Timings of cattle being brought forward were most likely to be affected for beef cattle.

 

In similar years, carcase weights had dropped sharply as farmers looked to destock their farms.

 

Farmers selling store animals could be forced to destock sooner than planned due to forage shortages, with finishers attempting to finish animals more quickly due to feed and straw shortages.

 

Mr Bicknell said: “The schedule to which they are sent forward, the degree of finish achievable, and carcase weights may all be negatively impacted.”

 

Lambing

 

Lamb production was hit by difficult conditions during lambing, with AHDB forecasting a 6 per cent reduction in the lamb crop.

 

While seasonality does not appear to have changed, those coming forward were under-finished hitting production.

 

 

Pigs

 

Pig farmers were likely to be most affected by higher feed and straw prices over the coming months, although excessive heat could also reduce growth rates and fertility. This could lead to lower production in January and February.

 

Mr Bicknell said: “This, coupled with the CO2 shortage and overhanging effects from the difficult winter, mean pig production has had a difficult year.”

 

With concerns over feed availability later in the year, Mr Bicknell advised farmers to ‘keep an eye’ on silage stocks and calculate their winter feeding budget now.

 

He added they should consider fixing some prices with their merchants, consider planting additional catch crops if the weather permits, and consider changing the components of the silage or food mix.

Cereals and oilseeds

Arable farmers may need to reassess any commitments in forward contracts and whether they will be able to ‘comfortably’ fulfil them.

 

Difficult spring planting conditions raised concerns, but up until mid-June, the industry was optimistic about yields, with warm weather speeding up emergence.

 

However, when crops needed rain in late June, it failed to materialise, with the major growing regions in particular getting little rain.

 

Mr Bicknell said: “These areas are more at risk due to their lighter, well-draining soils. Those regions on heavier soils are reportedly faring slightly better due to lower soil moisture deficits.

 

“Those regions on heavier soils are reportedly faring slightly better due to lower soil moisture deficits.”

Early harvest results reflected this variability with yields and quality wide ranging.

 

On top of this, the area of planted wheat was back 2 per cent, with increasing use of feed wheat in the bioethanol and poultry sector increasing demand. All this would put extra pressure on feed wheat for livestock producers.

 

The UK was a net importer in 2017/18 and could be again. However, world wheat supplies and stocks have also been slashed by the USDA.

 

Arable farmers also needed consider the impact on the next rotation, with early drilling for OSR tricky on hard, dry ground.

Potatoes

Potato crops have been left looking ‘thirsty’ with hot, dry weather causing concerns about the state of crops in the field.

 

Looking historically, improvements in irrigation and agronomy over the last 40 years have meant drought conditions have impacted yields less than excessive rainfall.

 

But irrigation systems were now under pressure, with more frequent irrigation taking more time and impacting costs.

 

Where crops have not been irrigated, there were reports of under-developed canopies, reduced yields and increasing dry matter content.

 

Mr Bicknell said: “Irrigation and nitrogen application strategies are now at a critical stage to affect crop development, and disease concerns should also be of focus.

 

“The cost of additional irrigation also needs to be factored into marketing strategies in addition to the balance between selling off the field and storage.”

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