Last year was an ‘annus horribilis’ for most livestock farmers, but what did they learn from coping with the weather extremes?
Chloe Palmer hears from dairy, beef and sheep farmers across the country...
Most farmers will be hoping 2018’s extremely difficult weather conditions will be a one-off. But if climate scientists are correct, UK farmers may have to cope with similar weather extremes more often in the coming decades.
This is according to Dr William Stiles, agri-environment lecturer at Ibers, Aberystwyth University, who says it is possible the UK will experience prolonged periods of intense cold, wet and drought with greater frequency.
He says: “Humans have been pumping more energy into the atmosphere as a consequence of increased greenhouse gas emissions. Increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means more energy from the sun is retained in this system, meaning future weather extremes are more likely.”
Dr Stiles believes when these events occur they are likely to extend across continents, so he suggests in extreme scenarios, there could ‘be no consistent bread basket areas left, as regions which are currently highly productive may become less reliable’.
“Everyone in different areas will have their own climate challenges to deal with and these events will affect all sectors of food production,” he says.
Dr Stiles believes there are several adaption strategies livestock farmers can consider to help combat adverse effects of drought and particularly wet weather.
He says: “Shifting towards the establishment of swards with a greater diversity of species will help make grazing systems more resilient, because the different species work together at a community level.
“Each species will perform well under different conditions. For example, those with a greater rooting depth will cope better with drought.
“There is some evidence to indicate rotational grazing allows grassland to fare better under drought scenarios as it may reduce the impact and stress from grazing, allowing plants to recover more quickly.
"The more healthy and productive the plants are above ground, the better for the roots below the surface, meaning better overall plant survival rates.
“Agroforestry has a key role to play as both an adaptation and a mitigation strategy. Trees can provide shade and shelter for livestock but if the aim is to increase water infiltration to soil, then trees may need to be fenced off from livestock.
"This is because when animals gather beneath the trees, it may cause increased localised soil compaction.”
Geraint Powell manages more than 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres) of grass in the Cotswolds by grazing for a number of different landlords.
Like Dr Stiles, he believes the secret to surviving extreme weather is to create a more resilient system.
Last year Mr Powell completed his Nuffield Scholarship focusing on ‘sustainable grazing strategies which meet ecological demands’.
He visited the United States, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Ireland where he saw first-hand different strategies for coping with a range of weather conditions.
Back home in the Cotswolds, he refers to last summer as the first ‘proper summer’ the country has experienced for some time and says it was a good test of soil health.
“We established a new herbal grass ley onto a block of arable land and, at the end of April, it established very successfully. By mid-July it had failed due to the dry conditions.
“This demonstrates to me how poor these soils have become after 50 years of high-input farming and now they are unable to support vegetation. Where a rotation comprising cropping and grazed pasture with legumes and herbs has been in place with our management for 12 years, the crops coped much better.
“I think this is because the diversity of plants with different root depths, coupled with the root exudates from the variety of species feeding the soil biology makes these swards more resilient,” Mr Powell explains.
Mr Powell believes choosing the right livestock genetics for the grazing system is key.
He describes the Aberdeen-Angus cows and Romney ewes he grazes across his varied ground as ‘robust, productive’ and ‘environment-fit’.
He advocates rotational grazing as it allows the plant to ‘fully recover’ during long rest periods to promote healthy rooting. And he agrees there needs to be more ‘ecological verification on-farm’ so there is information to demonstrate what works under different conditions and circumstances.
“Are we monitoring enough? How do we know what is good and bad? We need to better understand the benefits of different systems and learn to embrace the associated benefits of choosing to nurture over the unintended consequences of choosing to suppress.”
IN THE FIELD: Malcolm Fewster, West Yorkshire
MALCOLM Fewster has a springcalving dairy unit in Cleckheaton, where cows graze for nine months of the year.
He says: “We only had one month of normal grazing conditions last spring and summer and then it was incredibly dry until late September. Luckily, we had taken on extra permanent pasture the year before as otherwise we would have really struggled.
“We reseed an eighth of the grazing platform every year and prior to establishing grass we drill a block of kale, but this year it did very poorly. Eventually around two-thirds of it came through and it has provided really good winter feed since.
“As we are a grazed system it helps because we can supplement the grazing with some bought-in feed when we need to. In summer, the cows came in during the day and we fed haylage to provide some fibre, then they were out at night.
“In autumn, once it rained the grass came really well so the cows stayed out until Christmas.
“We left the shed doors open and most chose to go onto the kale where we put out some bales of silage. We have had much less slurry to deal with as a result.
“If I had known it was going to be so dry I would have established a longer grazing round of 45 days, rather than 25 days, much earlier in summer to allow the roots to get down a bit deeper.”