Farmer Focus: Weather extremes highlights food production challenges

At home we’re still enjoying the relative calm before the calving storm as I write in mid-February.

This morning has seen the arrival of the first 2014 calves born at Cairnhead, around 10 days early, which is normal and will almost certainly be followed by a steady trickle of one or two a day until our expected start date of the 19 February.

Further down the Eden valley at Dolphenby, near Penrith, on our other farm, the team are in full swing and should, by the time you read this, be three weeks into and around halfway through the 560 cows and heifers due to calve there this season.

Hopefully, if we’re given a dry week or two between now and then, they might even be out grazing with the milking herd. Surely there can’t be much more rain heading in our direction?

This week we’ve been forced to spread slurry in less than ideal conditions. Luckily the umbilical slurry spreading system was invented as I’m not sure how the farm would stand up to the weight of tractors and tankers, given how waterlogged we are. Every year the extremes of our weather seem only set to further intensify, constantly challenging the forecasters as current patterns seem to continually defy convention.

As the UK sets records for the wettest winter, on the west coast of the USA, California is setting records for the exact opposite. They’re suffering from the driest winter since records began 160 years ago. Simultaneously as 1000s of acres of productive land in the south west of England is waterlogged, millions of acres in California’s central valley are drought-stricken. Totally dependant on irrigation predominantly from winter snow fall-melt, the 2014 growing season is likely to be very challenging for the state water regulators.

Reservoir storage in the state is massively depleted following three years of successive drought and the historic overpumping of groundwater leaves few options for the dairy, fruit and nut farmers in the central valley, where around half of the state’s food is grown. So perhaps before we contemplate the rewilding of the uplands of the UK, surely it’s time for a thorough re-examination regarding the future potential of global food production.

Robert Craig farms a 160ha all-grass dairy unit in north-east Cumbria. A passionate grassland farmer, Robert aims to maximise profit while ensuring a balanced and enjoyable life. Robert is also current Cumbria NFU chairman

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