As Forrest Gump famously said: “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get!” Right now, exactly the same could be said of the British weather.
After the drenching suffered in autumn last year across the country, when many farmers struggled to get their crops in the ground, the UK has just experienced one of the driest springs on record. The advice dispensed by many experts was that farmers needed to start planning pretty sharpish for possible drought conditions in the coming summer months. And for good reason.
The lack of rain was presenting challenges to livestock farmers who were reporting that poor grass growth was affecting their ability to meet the growing demand for feed following calving and lambing. Meanwhile, arable farmers were also praying for rain. Cereal crops across large parts of the country had already been impacted by drought conditions. In addition, many farmers who were not able to drill their winter cereals in the autumn, but did manage to seed their crops in the spring, have been badly stung financially.
Just as we were about to start practising our rain dances, high pressure finally gave way to low and most parts of the country have since received some desperately needed rainfall. Whether we’ve had sufficient to address the immediate problems faced by farmers, or how long the unsettled weather picture will prevail is open to question. The one thing that is becoming increasingly predictable about the British weather is its unpredictability and there is no doubt we are now seeing more weather extremes on a consistent basis. Climate change models all confirm that, for the foreseeable future, weather volatility is here to stay.
Planning ahead for weather extremes, be they dry or wet, presents yet another difficulty for farmers in an industry that already has more than its fair share of challenges ahead of it; not least, figuring out ways to adapt, or even radically change, the way we farm as governments put pressure on agriculture to play its part in meeting net-zero carbon emissions targets two or three decades down the road.
At the moment, with weather volatility here to stay, the mantra would seem to be “hope for the best, plan for the worst”. Developing a drought resilience plan, for example, can help farmers to cope with excessively long dry spells. Whilst having a good soil management regime in place and looking at alternative cropping and rotation options can do much to offset the worst that another wet autumn can throw at us. But at the end of the day, there is only so much that can be done in the face of prolonged extreme weather and the limitations of the soil on which we farm.
As always, British farmers will just get on with it and, even in the most trying of circumstances, will find a way to succeed.