Opinion: Plan for the worst and hope for the best on climate change

I began my last column saying it looked like March would “come in like a lion, and go out like a lamb”.

Well I was wrong – it didn’t go out like a lamb, but more like some sort of wet, bedraggled, angry goat that kept coming back to headbutt you just when you thought you’d shaken it off.

As I write this, we are supposed to be in a heatwave, but it hasn’t quite reached north Shropshire yet. The sun made a feeble appearance yesterday, only for the clouds and drizzle to return today.

See also: Enable women to play a wider role in farming, says Liz Haines

It’s hard to stay optimistic at what should be one of the most exciting (and important) times of the year in such challenging conditions.

The fields are still sodden, our reseeds aren’t ready for drilling and our fodder beet will be late going in.

Cow condition has suffered, with a higher level of ketosis and retained cleansings than we would like – not ideal as the breeding season rapidly approaches.

Liz-HainesLiz Haines and her husband Nick milk 320 spring-calving cows in north Shropshire

Others, particularly sheep farmers, have suffered much worse losses, and we have got off relatively lightly.

However, I’m sure we will feel the repercussions of this spring well into next year.

We had plenty of silage to get us through the winter, but stocks are now depleted, and we will need a bumper summer to replace all of it for next year.

Although cow losses haven’t been too bad, an increased empty rate from poorer fertility this year could also bite us next time.

I keep reminding myself that this year’s weather is surely a once-in-a-generation event. However, as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, I fear we could experience more extreme weather sooner than we expect.

Everything must balance out somewhere, so will we now have the driest summer on record? I hope not.

Coping with uncertainty

So how do we cope with all this uncertainty? The biggest thing that has kept us in a positive frame of mind is our staff.

For once we have been slightly overstaffed, as we took on a temporary Kiwi worker who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

It meant that, even at the peak of the awful weather, when all our water pipes were frozen and we were having to fill our intermediate bulk container in the garden every hour for the cows, we were still able to finish at a half-reasonable time and everyone still got their days off.

We have a team breakfast every morning, and a team lunch on Fridays. I hope that small things like this keep everyone ticking over, making us better able to bounce back from a bad day.

On the business side, it’s about remembering that we are playing the long game, and if the farm is set up right, one bad year won’t make or break us.

Farmers in our discussion group with cubicles for the whole herd have coped better than we have with our limited housing, and we know we need to future-proof our system with further investment.

Farmers in Australia have been using strategies, both financially and in farming practice, to cope with extreme drought cycles for decades.

We can’t predict the weather, but we can plan for the worst-case scenario. That way, most years we are more likely to be pleasantly surprised.

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