Blog: NFU meets Defra and EA about dry weather

Paul Hammett with water abstration image river_43514

NFU water resources expert Paul Hammett writes:

As temperatures soar, our meeting (19 June) with Defra and the Environment Agency to review the impact of prolonged dry weather was definitely well timed.

Current NFU dialogue with our members is focused on the South and East. The feedback we’ve received over the past couple of weeks has been cautiously optimistic for the current growing season. Without doubt, rainfall in late May and early June averted what would have been a very serious situation for agriculture.

This is particularly so for the arable crop sector that is wholly reliant on rainfall.

It’s heartening to note that some cereal farmers are reporting that changes in soil management practices have helped their situation – minimum tillage cultivation is becoming more common on farms and one of its advantages is that minimum soil disturbance reduces soil moisture losses.

While rain may have saved our wheat and barley crops, cereal yields are already affected - farmers on light land in areas such as the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecks expect crops to fall by 10-25% from their potential in terms of yield and quality.

Hay and silage crops are safely gathered in, and livestock farmers report good yields resulting from mild winter and spring temperatures, but crops were again saved by the recent rain. However current high temperatures are now affecting grass growth, which may impact on summer livestock grazing.

For the irrigated crop sector, reservoirs were full at the start of the season. Hands off flow constraints on surface water abstraction are now beginning to bite on some licences in some areas, causing some difficult cropping decisions. The horticultural sector is heavily reliant on aquifers and, in general, access to groundwater has so far not been affected.

As irrigated crops approach harvest, more fruit and vegetable growers will start to feel more confident, but the next few weeks will be critical – and most if not all are very conscious of the threat posed by a second dry winter.

The following verbatim report from one of our monitor farmers, a lettuce grower in Kent, highlights the vulnerability of our sector to dry weather and the tightrope that farmers and growers walk in managing extreme weather risks.

“We just about managed to re-fill our reservoirs this winter.

It had to be very carefully managed because for most of the winter the river levels were never high enough to abstract.

We did however have one wet week early in January and this just gave us enough of a window to re-fill our reservoirs. So, we started this season at full water capacity.

We used considerably more water during May than our seven year average, but a dry May has a relatively small impact on increased water usage compared to consumption in June, July and August. Transpiration rates in May are 1-2mm per day whereas in the heat of the summer they can be 4 or 5mm per day.

The fact that we have now had around 75mm of rain in the last three weeks has helped, but the ground is still very dry.

We have robust systems in place, but we will still be only 10-15% full in the reservoirs at the end of the season if we don’t get any more rain.

If we then get another dry winter I can see a situation where farmers struggle to winter fill in 2017/18, but we will get through this summer.”

NFU work with the Environment Agency focuses on how we can together provide members with information to help them plan and manage the risk of drought.

We continue to promote Environment Agency updates and its prospects for irrigation reports.

We are talking to the Environment Agency about making real time river flow data available to farmers – the type of service that exists for high flow and flood risk. Pilot exercises are proposed for the River Wissey in Norfolk and the River Medway in Kent.

The NFU is monitoring food prices and inflation, both of which have risen since the start of the growing season.

However, recent increases in food prices are largely driven by the impact of the weaker pound on the food supply chain.

Regardless of the reasons behind higher inflation (currency or weather), we recognise that the global dynamics of supply and demand largely shape commodity prices, rather than the spell of dry weather we’ve been experiencing recently.  

Nevertheless, wider scale EU weather events could yet impact on the global supply and demand balance, although not in isolation of commodity trends in other markets. We will continue to monitor the developing weather situation in, for example, Mediterranean countries that supply some of our fruit and vegetables.

The Water for Food group is an alliance of organisations in the agri-food sector interested in the relationship between food production and water availability.

Through our membership of the group, we organised an event in May where we brought together contacts from all Environment Agency area offices in the Midlands, East and South for local updates on water availability and prospects for irrigation. This was a highly relevant and useful exercise for us because dry weather impacts in agriculture tend to be localised.

In this way we have established good contact with Environment Agency area offices and we are keeping in close touch where the need arises for the Agency to impose irrigation restrictions on members – and we are particularly interested in developing best practise in the process of applying those restrictions (the notification process).

While there will inevitably be localised problems faced by members in the weeks and months ahead, we hope that widespread serious water shortages on farm will be avoided this summer.

But our attention is already turning to 2018 and the potential impact of a second dry winter.

This means that, without doubt, our ongoing dialogue with government and its agencies, public water companies and the environment sector will be increasingly important.

Our role will be to share evidence, communicate consistent messages and plan for the longer term on behalf of the agricultural and horticultural sector.

Last edited on: 20:06:2017

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