Northumberland farmer speaks out on climate change

Michael Howie has spoken out after Government advisers warned that climate change could leave farmers with only half as much water as they need to produce crops in the future

Dairy farmer Michael Howie
Dairy farmer Michael Howie

A Northumberland dairy farmer has spoken about the problems being caused to water supply by climate change.

Michael Howie, from Morwick, near Warkworth, has spoken out after Government advisers warned that climate change could leave farmers with only half as much water as they need to produce crops in the future.

He said: “Farmers have suffered drought and flood conditions over the past few years and this is causing problems with the water-table levels, soil condition and subsequent growth.

“Last autumn, crops throughout the UK did not germinate properly, owing to the wet field conditions, and farmers are seeing a lot of resulting bare patches in wheat and barley fields. Several farmers reseeded their crops in the spring, once their land dried-up.

“However, we have gone to another weather extreme and the recent lack of rainfall may have a further negative impact on arable crop yield.”

According to the Committee on Climate Change’s adaptation team, higher temperatures, drier soils and more demand for food due to a growing population will increase demand for irrigation of crops.

Lower river levels, due to the UK facing increasing weather extremes such as reduced summer rainfall and drought, will also contribute to potentially significant shortfalls between the amount of water needed to grow crops, and what can be supplied, the report reveals.

Without changes to farming practices, the water shortfall in a dry year could be up to 115bn litres, almost half the 240bn litres a year used by agriculture, experts have warned.

The Howie family own the award-winning Morwick herd and set up an ice cream parlour 10 years ago.

Their herd of Ayrshire and Holstein cows produce quality milk essential for making ice cream and the business relies on an abundance of good grass growth.

Howie said: “At this time of year, farmers need good quality grass, with high sugar levels, in order to make quality silage for winter feed. We need a better balance to recent climatic conditions but as farmers, we cannot control the weather.

“A dairy cow will produce around 40 litres of milk per day, so she needs to drink enough water to maintain production as well as maintain her own body condition. However, this year, our grass quality and growth is good, and due to the recent warm weather, sales of ice cream have increased.”

Lord Krebs, who chairs the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change, said that while any one extreme weather event could not be attributed to climate change, the droughts, storms and floods seen recently were likely to become the “new normal”.

The report comes after the UK suffered the wettest autumn on record, followed by the coldest spring for more than 50 years, reducing wheat yields by around one third and forcing food manufacturers to import 2.5 million tonnes of wheat – the amount the UK would normally export.

The report states the price of water should be higher where it is scarce, which will provide an incentive for farmers to employ efficient irrigation methods and construct on-farm water storage facilities to make the most of wet conditions.

Droughts, storms and floods seen recently ... likely to become the ‘new normal’

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