Drought: Experts warn preparation now could make the difference between profit and loss

Below average rainfall is triggering UK farmers and growers to adopt water-savvy techniques early in the year, to be prepared should another agricultural drought hit.

The Environment Agency has already declared irrigation prospects ‘moderate to poor’ in the East of England – in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex – areas reliant upon chalk aquifers for supply. Many other areas are also classified as ‘moderate’, with much of England in a weaker position than 2018.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) is calling the industry to consider options to place them in a stronger position for the summer.

Prepare now

AHDB water resources scientist Nicola Dunn said: “With time to prepare, we’d encourage farmers and growers to develop contingency plans and consider options, which could make the difference between a profit or loss situation this summer.

“Throughout winter and spring, the Environment Agency has issued certain areas with ‘hands off flow’ notices, meaning farmers and growers must stop abstracting water to top up storage facilities.

This means savvy techniques will be needed to help businesses get more from the water they have in the worst affected areas.

“If your business has water storage facilities which are fully topped up, you could approach the Environment Agency to find out if you could trade water with a neighbour.

“Exploring investment into techniques – like precision irrigation – could reduce the volume of water needed through the season.

“And, in the longer term, if you’re planting crops, there may be more resilient varieties you could choose where the market dictates, which manage better in dry conditions.”

Drought in 2019?

Speaking on the AHDB podcast, Lincolnshire farmer and chairman of Nene Potatoes, David Hoyles, said he expected 2019 would be another challenging year with the local reservoir not yet recovered from the effects of last year’s drought.

“We grow a variety of root crops, peas and some cereals on the farm,” he explained.

“Last year we prioritised our irrigation focusing on our most profitable crops first, as a result, our potatoes and beetroot yields turned out well. However, our sugar beet crop, which was not irrigated, delivered a yield almost 25% less than we achieved in 2017.

This year is looking like a bigger challenge than last, because our reservoir is currently at 30%.

“We’re already irrigating, but, to help us manage and target our water use, we’ve invested in more soil moisture probes. We’re also getting out with a spade to check ground conditions.

“A lesson from last year was that we need better crop nutrition, so we’ve also been looking at different ways to do that, with bio-stimulant trials underway we’re following the ADAS guidance and taking samples from our crops as we go.

“The good thing is, we have time to prepare and we’re acting early to make sure we’re better protected.”