Feeling the heat down on the farm?

As we endure weeks of blistering heat and prolonged drought, comparisons are being made with the Summer of 1976. This summer will be one that also lives long in the memory – especially for those whose livelihoods depend on the weather. John updates us on how bad things are getting on the farm – from an exclusive source! 

Green and pleasant land?

After weeks without rain, very little can grow from the dry, cracked soil

There’s a growing nostalgia about the colour ‘Green’. It’s hard to believe it, but I’m almost envious of Sara, who’s just flown off to steamy Florida for a few weeks. Yes, it’s even hotter there – too hot for me – but at least regular downpours help keep things verdant. Back home this remarkable summer has long since taken its toll on my ‘dead’ back garden.

 

As the countryside turns brown, I know that for farmers there are far more serious concerns beyond the state of the lawn.

It’s been the driest start to summer for almost 60 years. For some parts of the country,  around 60 days have passed without any significant rain; and in tandem with blistering heat, inevitable comparisons are being made with the long, hot summer of 1976.

 

… livestock are struggling to find a blade of grass to chew on

 

 

As bad as ’76?

While harvest time has come early, the yields are low

Back in ’76, there was serious hardship in the countryside. Hundreds of livestock perished as water supplies dried up and fodder reserves became exhausted. Dessicated crops withered before farmers’ eyes, spawning panic buying of vegetables as shop prices soared.

Well, we’re not there yet. In fact, to the casual observer, all might seem quite promising as combine harvesters churn away in the golden fields, a month before normal! Not so. Early crops do not mean good crops. Whilst the late spring heat allowed quick growth, the missing vital ingredient of water has stunted subsequent development. Some farmers have given up and ploughed everything back into the dusty soil. It’s a tough and expensive decision to cut one’s losses, give up, start again and wait for rain.

And from those fields that are harvested, not only is the grain of poor quality, the remaining straw is shorter too.

Farmers have been forced to feed their livestock on winter fodder

As almost everything stops growing, so livestock are struggling to find a blade of grass to chew on. Farmers are dipping into winter stocks of hay and silage, normally reserved for the long, dark months; which creates a vicious cycle of economic impact for months to come. This remarkable summer is affecting every branch of agriculture.

 

 

In at the deep end

What better time to embark on a farming career?! Well, that’s exactly what my son, Fred is doing this summer. As the founder of Brewer’s Goose, he’ll be hand-rearing free-range geese, fed on grass and brewers’ grains. I helped him collect the day-old goslings from Norfolk earlier in the summer, and since that sunny morning, new life’s been a baptism of fire. Livestock so young are extremely vulnerable to extreme weather.

 

… there have already been some casualties

 

From inside the shed where the goslings are housed, Fred explains: “We’re in an environment that is actually quite difficult to control”. For the first few weeks, fed and sheltered indoors, their very lives are crucially dependent on temperature in particular. And whilst in most summers the challenge is keeping temperatures high enough, this year we’ve got the opposite problem.  Heat-lamps have been replaced by fans on full blast. But even then, the thermometer has climbed high into the 30s Celsius. Dangerously high.

Farmers are anxiously looking to the skies for rain-clouds

As Fred reflects: “The last week has been a real struggle”. Like humans, goslings sweat to keep cool. But unlike humans, goslings like to peck the sweat from each others’ backs. The hotter it is, the more they sweat.

With time, their backs have been pecked bare and sore – threatening their growth and well-being. Unfortunately there have already been some casualties. But necessity is the mother of invention, and Fred has thought up a number strategies to keep temperatures down, hydration up and the goslings off each others’ backs! So far so good. Full of optimism, Fred points out to me, holding one of the goslings: “The regrowth is coming at quite a rate, which is a brilliant thing”.

 

Some green shoots are long overdue

 

New life – new hope

Within a few days, the young geese will have grown enough feathers to be released outside into a field of grass – very little grass! “We’ve had about 2 centimetres’ growth in six weeks”, Fred observes as we wander outside and look over the field that will be the geese’s new home. Thanks to the ongoing drought, it looks like plenty more challenges lie ahead. And I haven’t even mentioned the fox!

Far away form the farm, as the summer holidays get into full swing, many of us will be soaking up the sunshine, hoping that high pressure holds the rain clouds at bay until September. After all, I’ve been in the weather game long enough to know that it won’t be long after the first few showers that our brown lawns turn green and we’re complaining about too much rain again.

It will take more than a passing thunderstorm to put right the months of low rainfall

But in agriculture, there’s been quite enough high pressure already – in more ways than one. And for one young goose farmer in particular, the rain can’t come quickly enough. Some green shoots are long overdue.

Don’t forget to get my latest thoughts on the upcoming weather in John Hammond’s Month Ahead blog,  found in our Wow and Why section, and updated every Friday.

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