Summer drought measures are increasingly likely in 2019 if dry weather persists, the NFU has warned.
This follows initial results from an NFU survey, which suggests that one-third of farmers who irrigate crops do not have enough water for the 2019 season.
The survey shows that many farmers are continuing to feel the impact of last year’s agricultural drought – despite measures put in place to mitigate water scarcity.
Two-thirds of livestock farmers said they were still experiencing, or expected to experience, a shortage of forage and fodder due to poor growing conditions in 2018.
Of those farmers experiencing ongoing problems, two-thirds were able to extend the growing season, two-thirds had bought in fodder, and half had sold livestock.
The NFU survey also suggests farmers are contingency planning to meet short-term risks of water scarcity rather than waiting for long-term climate change to bite.
One-third of growers who irrigate are changing the types of crops they grow, with one in four reducing the planted area of particular crop types.
Half are investing in new irrigation equipment to increase efficiency, with one in five investing in new or additional reservoir storage capacity.
One-sixth are exploring opportunities for trading water or land with water rights, although the same proportion are not taking any particular measures to manage water shortage risks.
NFU national water resources specialist Paul Hammett said these survey results underlined concerns expressed by East Anglian farmers to the Environment Agency.
The past 10 months have been the second driest for the region since records began in 1910, with only 28mm of rain received during February – equivalent to 75% of long-term average rainfall.
Lack of time
“A return to wet weather conditions could still turn the situation around,” Mr Hammett said.
“But time is running out to fill farm reservoirs and summer drought measures will be increasingly likely if the dry weather persists.
“We could be in a situation, as last year, where car owners can still wash their cars, gardeners can still water their lawns but farmers won’t have the water they need to grow our food.”
Earlier this week the government called a meeting of its National Drought Group (NDG) to review the position on weather and water availability going into spring.
The NFU represents the farming sector on the NDG.
The Met Office reported to the NDG that there was a 50/50 chance of a return to dry, settled weather in the coming weeks.
Although groundwater levels are below normal across a large part of the country, irrigation restrictions from borehole sources are not currently expected.
Restrictions could be imposed on river licences, depending on flows, in some areas such as East Anglia, the NFU said.
Combined with an earlier start to the irrigation season and low water levels in some farm reservoirs, this could point to a challenging summer for some farmers.
Farmers at a recent NFU irrigation prospects meeting for East Anglia said they were “concerned but not panicking” about the emerging situation.