6 ways farmers can protect themselves from climate change

June 18th 2020

Rupert Wailes-Fairbairn, our Rural Divisional Director and long-time cereals farmer himself, considers the damaging impact of climate change on crop yields and looks at some of the steps farmers can take to bolster their resilience

This Spring has seen a raft of records broken.

The Met Office confirmed that May 2020 has become the sunniest calendar month on record in the UK.

We have also experienced the sunniest Spring on record for the UK and the driest May on record in England.

But records being smashed is not always a cause for celebration.

The unseasonably warm temperatures and increasingly volatile weather patterns are a stark reminder of the accelerating pace of climate change – and its impact is being felt by the UK economy, not least by the farming community.

Farmers feeling the heat

Climatic extremes impact all farmers.  Livestock farmers are having to contend with a drop in demand for meat, due to perception that livestock is a contributor to greenhouse gases, as well as struggle with food shortages for their stock and heat exhaustion during dry spells.  But growers are arguably the worst affected by swings in weather.

Last autumn, relentless rain led to arable farmers planting the smallest winter cropping area in decades.  Consequently, farmers were forced to turn to spring cropping on some soils that are not really suited to spring establishment.   In turn, spring crops are shallower rooting and less able to tolerate moisture deficits and prolonged hot weather.

Now the pendulum has swung dramatically the other way, with very little spring rainfall and high temperatures leading to extremely dry conditions.

But hoping for a ‘return to normal’ is a wish in vain, with evidence suggesting extreme weather events are increasing in frequency.  According to the Met Office, by 2050, heatwaves similar to that witnessed in 2018 could occur every other year and this volatility will have an inevitable knock-on impact on crop production.

Impact on crop yields

In some cases, higher temperatures may lead to an increase in yields as growing seasons lengthen. For example, production in cool, wet upland areas, such as the west and north, may benefit from warmer and drier conditions, whilst production in lowland areas, such as the south and east, may fall.

This claim is supported by a recent study by the University of Exeter, which showed that climate change could drive the UK’s agriculture to the north and the west.  Most of the arable, or crop growing, farming in the UK is in the east and south east of the region, with livestock pastures being more commonly located in the north and the west.

The new study looked at the effects of the 5-degree warming predicted by 2100, which is based on the projected growth of the world’s carbon emissions.

The findings suggest that unmitigated climate change would change the way land is used in the UK, with large regions of the east and south east of England becoming less productive land, without irrigation.

This, the report suggested, may create opportunities for livestock farmers further west and north to switch to more profitable arable farming.

In the long-term, the impacts of climate change will be keenly felt across all regions, particularly as the benefits of warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons become outweighed by reductions in water availability.

Areas already under strain from poor water supplies will feel the heat the most, with persistent droughts in summer most damaging to the south of the country.

On the other extreme is the deluge of water resulting from heavy rainfall, flooding and rising sea levels.  With higher temperatures comes higher precipitation levels, meaning the water density of the air will be higher and winters, wetter.

As well as suffering substantial losses in crop production in low-lying agricultural areas during sustained rainfall and flooding, the less than optimum conditions caused by wet weather impacts farmers’ ability to plan and execute regular sowing and harvesting schedules.

Feeling the financial strain

Against this backdrop of persistent uncertainty and increasingly unpredictable crop yields the agricultural sector face clear vulnerabilities.

According to a Farmers Weekly survey, more than four out of five farmers say they are experiencing more frequent extreme weather events on their farm and three-quarters of those questioned said it had cost them more than £50,000 over the past five years – an average of more than £10,000 per year.

With farmers facing such adversity, it is little wonder that the industry is calling for appropriate policy measures from government to support farmers.  Whilst the powers that be are indeed listening and reacting to their plight – in the aftermath of the widespread flooding in 2019, a Farming Recovery Fund was set up by the Government to assist those worst affected – many feel not enough is being done to offset the impact.

Bracing for the future by embracing new ways

With so much at stake, farmers need to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and adapt their operations to suit the changing environment.  Indeed, many farmers are already implementing practical and proactive steps to do so.

In the Farmers Weekly survey, one-third of farmers said they had either changed or were planning to make changes to their farm business to mitigate the increased threat of extreme weather.

Effective water and soil management strategies are, of course, paramount. This has been brought into particularly sharp focus of late with a lack of rainfall causing difficulties in replenishing soils and water storage facilities.

Due to abstraction management reform policies, licences for water abstraction are expected to become increasingly restricted, which will make the need for more, strategically-located on-site water storage solutions all the more pressing. Indeed, farmers have been urged by some experts to consider the construction of on-site reservoirs.

Effective soil monitoring should help ensure irrigation is scheduled accurately. Moreover, efforts should be made to ensure water applications are optimised, based on variables such as individual crop response and the water retention capacity of the soil.

Deploying different farming methods and altering machinery use can also help minimise the impact on soil.

In some cases, changes may be needed to the crops grown to improve production yields, soil drainage or to reduce soilborne disease. Maize, for example, is able to survive on less rainfall than other popular crops of choice.

As well as choosing stronger, more resilient breeds of crop or switching to growing different crops altogether, farmers will increasingly have to adapt crop timings, which, in the long-term, could alter the seasonality of the agriculture industry in the UK.

Technological solutions may also have a burgeoning role to play. Software tools that incorporate AI modelling are already able to assist farmers in building ‘profit maps’ and enable improvements in field utilisation.  Precision farming will not only lead to more efficient processes but allow farmers to cut emissions and reduce their carbon footprint.

Another risk management consideration is Crop Shortfall Insurance. Farmers can now protect themselves against production shortfalls with insurance that will automatically trigger pay-outs to farmers if extreme weather causes yields in their region to fall below the historic average.

Crop Shortfall Insurance, from Lycetts, protects up to a quarter of the policy holder’s cereals and oil seeds output.  Pay-outs will be triggered if there is more than a 10 per cent difference between the DEFRA regional yield data for the year, relative to the eight-year regional average.

The product can cover either a farm’s total crop output or individual crops, such as winter oilseed rape, winter barley, winter wheat or spring barley.

Unlike traditional insurance, where insurers must survey the damage, it allows for a quicker, and more objective, claims settlement process.

Managing risk better

It is hard to accurately predict how climate change will impact the agricultural industry in the future but what is certain is that farmers need to be flexible in their approach and evolve their operations in order weather the storm and survive.

Risk management solutions are urgently called for and the industry as a whole, alongside government, must look to continually innovate and work smarter in a bid to mitigate the worst excesses of this volatile environment.

To find out more about Crop Shortfall Insurance, visit lycetts.co.uk/insights/protect-your-crop-yield/ or email rupert.wailes-fairbairn@lycetts.co.uk.

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