Bloomberg News

British Agriculture Needs Rain After Driest 12 Months on Record

November 17, 2011

Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) -- British grain and livestock may be hurt by a lack of rain this winter after the driest 12 months on record cut soil moisture and reservoir levels, said Jenny Bashford, the water-policy adviser at the National Farmers’ Union.

The year through September was the driest on record for parts of England, according to the NFU. Rain needs to fall for about 14 days to replenish soil moisture and fill reservoirs, Bashford said during a briefing in London today. Feed-wheat futures in London rose to a record in April, partly because dry weather threatened crops.

“We need about two weeks’ worth of day-and-night rain,” Bashford said. “What we have going forward is the potential, a risk, that the reservoirs go down and a soil moisture drought as well. That becomes a water resource problem for livestock as well as grain growth.”

Agriculture uses 1 percent of water in England and Wales, according to a report from the union today. About 71 percent of farmers who responded to an NFU survey said their water is from a public supply and 16 percent said they own or had access to a private reservoir, according to the report. Eighteen percent said they irrigate their crops.

Because of licensing rights, some farmers who need to irrigate fields or water livestock may not be able to get enough water next year, according to the survey. About 55 percent have limits on their water licenses, which are required for use above 20 cubic meters (700 cubic feet) a day, “which means under certain conditions they will not be allowed to abstract water,” according to the report.

Cost of Water

Crop growers and livestock producers are very aware of how much water they use because of the price, said Gwyn Jones, vice president of the NFU who operates a 300-head dairy farm in West Sussex, England, about 45 minutes south of London. Jones said his cows drink about 3,000 gallons of water a day, on average, and he recycles water.

“The cost of water itself makes sure these days you’re as efficient as you can be, that you don’t have any leaky pipes,” Jones said. “The water we use for cooling the milk is then given to the cows. It’s a case of trying to use water once, twice, three times if you can.”

Grass production in England and Wales may decline if cold weather this winter is followed by dry weather in the spring, cutting the amount of food and bedding available for livestock, Bashford said.

“If it turns very cold it becomes a question of whether there will be enough food and bedding for livestock,” she said. “If we have a dry spring, we won’t get the sileage cut to feed the livestock.”

On-Farm Reservoirs

The Environment Agency should allow farmers to manage their own water use in times of short supply and should be more flexible with regard to regulation of water licenses, the NFU said. Farmers should build more on-farm reservoirs and more research into drought-resistant plants should be done to solve water issues, the NFU said.

“We need to treat water as a resource, not as a problem,” Bashford said. “We tend to treat water as a problem. When we have flooding it makes sense to me that we try to save for when we haven’t got as much. Water needs to be managed across the spectrum from droughts to flooding.”

--Editors: John Deane, Dan Weeks

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony C. Dreibus in London at tdreibus@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Claudia Carpenter at ccarpenter2@bloomberg.net


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