Journey highlights lack of rain

Until a few days ago I believed the dry spring was only affecting those of us who farm in the south and east. Then I travelled from Norfolk almost to Manchester and realised the problem stretched across the country.

Whether it’s quite as serious in Derbyshire and beyond as it is around this area of Norfolk and most points between the two is hard to say. Hill farming is rather different, after all, but rainfall has been well below normal all over and I saw enough to know that few spring crops and grass will be bankers this year.

That said, throughout my journey, most early drilled winter cereals and rape looked OK and were benefiting from early top dressings. The exceptions were occasional fields of oilseed rape where establishment was patchy. Also, often in the same fields, pigeons had eaten into crops from those bare places. Incidentally, the good-looking forward crops have not yet reached their peak moisture needs. But drought stress could start to show soon.

Later-drilled wheats – often, I suspect, where sugar beet or potatoes had been lifted late or not at all – and most spring barleys, were struggling. Emergence was patchy and what was there was a bad colour and clearly hadn’t grown for days despite the warm temperatures. Many looked from the road like crops that had been drilled into indifferent seedbeds with variable moisture levels leading to inconsistent germination. I suspect a lot of the seeds were still lying under clods waiting for rain.

Even if we get a good soak now (and we often do after I write a piece like this, so let’s hope it helps break the drought) I can’t see how those crops can ever catch up and achieve decent yields.

And it’s not just cereals that are suffering. A lot of sugar beet was drilled into March dust and, while the seedbeds may have been easy to make and looked good behind the drill, the few drops of rain we’ve had have been insufficient to soften the clay coating around the seeds and allow them to germinate. It does not bode well for a full, even, plant stand and optimum yield.

Several potato planters were busy beside the road I travelled and tubers appeared to be going into textbook ridges – albeit too dry. The moisture in the seed potatoes will keep them going for a while, of course, but pretty soon they too will want significant rain – or irrigation – to sustain growth. And already there are threats of hosepipe bans and restrictions on the use of water.

The only evidence of adequate rain I heard of on my travels was from friends from Cumbria and south-west Scotland. They complained of too much rain, close to flooding in places, with no spring drilling done at all. Forecasters have also been showing plenty of rain in those areas. The trouble is it seems to peter out as clouds travel south and east leaving the rest of us parched and increasingly desperate.

Is this what climate change is like? Are we set to suffer long periods of one kind of weather before it changes to another for several weeks at a time? Have we seen the last of the temperate climate that gave us a mixture of rain and sunshine in the same week and which enabled this country to produce some of the highest yields in the world? Or is this no more than normal climatic variation? Answers on a postcard please.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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