My rain gauge for March measured less than half an inch. April looks like being drier still. Are droughts in the South East of England going to become more common and, if so, what can arable farmers in our region do to mitigate their impact?
The obvious strategy to avoid the worst effects of dry springs and summers is to sow a big proportion of crops in the autumn. Winter crops get their root systems established before the spring, while spring crops, where the top few inches of soil very often have to be moved more than once to achieve a satisfactory tilth, lose vital soil moisture to evaporation.
The problem with moving entirely to autumn sown crops, of course, is that the options have become so limited. Winter crops require more pesticides to protect them through the longer growing season, but the array of permitted herbicides and insecticides has become ever more restricted by environmental regulators, so our ability to protect our crops has gradually been eroded.
Blackgrass has therefore become ever more difficult to control, making the growing of continuous winter wheat much less common. But even as farmers have switched into crop rotations and away from wheat monoculture, the most popular break crop – oilseed rape – has become threatened like never before from a whole range of insect pests that can’t be dealt with so efficiently due to the ban on neo-nicotinoid insecticides.
Min-till certainly offers some solutions to these problems. The promise of improved soil structure and the reduction in moisture loss through less cultivation are potentially great advantages. But min-till is not a silver bullet solution to the adverse effects of drought.
If the crop is to be drilled into a shallow cultivated layer of soil, germination and establishment can be problematic – particularly if surface trash harbours pests like slugs.
Looking at my crops this spring I have not yet moved into panic mode. An open autumn gave me an opportunity to sow everything under ideal conditions and, as it happens, (apart from the acre of potatoes I grow for the kitchen of our pub) all my crops for this current season have been in the ground since October.
But even if my winter crops do stand up to the worst effects of another spring and then summer drought, as an arable farmer I still face an increasingly hazardous livelihood in terms of future harvests as the climate changes.
Then again, if increasing temperatures and lack of moisture do reduce the reliability of my future harvests, all is not lost. Lighter harvests produce better farm gate prices. So, even as I have been writing this, my computer screen has just flashed a message sent from my farming co-operative: “New crop values reach record highs on drought concerns – phone the office for prices”.
Even a lack of clouds has a silver lining.