Rain is important to farmers, but too much or too little can bring many challenges for them to overcome. Of course, every farmer wants their rainfall to be in a Goldilocks Zone – that sweet spot where there is just the right amount of moisture to grow healthy crops or lush for grass for cattle. However, the British weather is variable, and the effects of climate change may mean more extreme conditions from one season to the next. 

We asked two of the Countryside Regeneration Trust’s farmers how the exceptionally wet start to the year was affecting their livelihoods. Matthew Elphick (ME) farms livestock at 52-acre Brays Farm in Surrey where he makes products like cheese and yoghurt from the milk from his shorthorn cows, selling them at local shops and farmer markets. Tim Scott (TS) runs 400-acre Lark Rise Farm in Cambridge, where he grows a variety of arable crops regeneratively.

Matt Elphick at Brays Farm, Surrey.

Tim Scott at Lark Rise Farm, Cambridgeshire.

 Here’s what our farmers told us:

What’s the soil type at your farm?
ME: At Brays Farm we have some sandy soil, but it’s mostly clay. This makes a lot of it very heavy when it’s wet.

TS: Lark Rise has a predominantly clay soil, so it’s heavy and stays wet in the conditions we’re currently experiencing.

What was last spring like for you compared to this one?
ME: Last year we had a nice spring and were able to turn the cows out into the fields in February, but this exceptionally wet winter and early springs means it’s likely to be sometime in April before the land is firm enough for the cattle to graze. Right now, they’re still indoors.

TS: Yes, last Spring was great! It was dry in February, so we were able to get all our drilling done so our spring-sown crops were in early. Traditionally, February is dry month, but this year it’s just been continually wet. I know everyone thinks that all farmers do is moan about the weather, but this year we really do have something to fret about. I tried to do some drilling the other day after a few rare dry days, but the soil was so waterlogged my tractor got stuck!

Can you prepare for such a wet winter and start to the new year?
ME: I buy sileage to last the whole winter, so the longer the cattle aren’t grazing on the fields, the more sileage we use and the more it costs. I like to have some sileage, so if we have drought in the summer and I need to supplement their feed, I can. I farm regeneratively, so I am rotating the cattle and giving the grass a good rest between grazing, so I can manage the situation to some extent, but I may need to invest in extra sileage later in the year.

TS: Unfortunately, as an arable farmer, I must deal with whatever the weather throws at me. Ironically, the regenerative way I manage my soil isn’t helping me in this wet weather, because with a cover crop over the soil, even on a drying day the heavy clay soil isn’t losing moisture in the way a bare cultivated soil would. That said, later in the year, if we get a period of low rainfall, that same soil will retain its moisture better, so the growing crops at that point will fare better.

Above: The shorthorns eating sileage.

Do you think the weather is changing and you’ll have to get used to more extremes?
ME: I think extremes of wet weather in winter and drought in summer is something we must plan for. At least as a cattle farmer I can do that by buying extra sileage. Although it costs more and isn’t as good for the cattle as grazing is, at least I have some sort of solution. I suspect this situation is harder for Tim.

TS: I agree that we are experiencing more irregular weather patterns and extreme conditions. Naturally, I am concerned after this very wet start to the year, the summer is going to see very low rainfall and give me another big headache. The unpredictable weather means basic farming decision-making is much trickier now. Getting things wrong can cost a lot of money, but it’s hard to know the right things to do when conditions vary so much.

Above: Normally the field margins can withstand the weight of a tractor but currently at Lark Rise Farm the conditions are very wet and muddy.

What are the ideal weather conditions for you from this point?
ME: My ideal is that this wet weather dries up for a time to be replaced with a period of low rain. As farmers, we need the rain, but it’s been exceptional here in Surrey. I want to get the cattle out in the fields, and they want to be there too.

TS: I desperately need two to three weeks of dry weather so I can get the seed in the ground, and then some normal standard April showers next month to help it grow. If I don’t get this and the seed goes into cold, wet clay soil, it will take much longer for the seed to germinate, and its root will be weaker. I need drier, warmer soil so the seeds germinate quickly and develop from a good, healthy root. All my fingers are currently crossed. 

CRT trustee, William Cross (above), who is also a highly experienced livestock farmer, understands better than most the difficulties this year’s weather conditions have created.

“As a farmer myself, I totally understand the frustrations felt by Tim and Matt, and indeed British farmers everywhere. This winter period and early spring have been so wet that it has impacted in so many areas of agriculture. In fact, at my farm in Rutland the hard feeding of fattening lambs (now hogs) with concentrate and sugar beet pulp nuts has been a nightmare with travelling over the waterlogged permanent pastures.

“Luckily, we have and use a small Kubota low ground pressure Rough Terrain Vehicle that reduces the rutting effect across the fields. The constant wet has also affected the finishing of the hogs because animals have to use much more energy keeping warm when their wool is saturated most of the time. The ewes have also had a challenging winter and this year’s lambs hate the wet, cold and blustery conditions and are seen seeking shelter under our hedges and in areas of long grass. Very similar to a person wearing a wet woollen sweater! We are now looking forward to a brighter and drying time when the crops, livestock, farmers, and our wildlife can go forward with their lives.”

Published: March 2024

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