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Dealing with Drought at Eastbrook

Dealing with Drought at Eastbrook

This year's extreme weather has hit hard. In this blog, Helen reflects on some of the tough decisions she has had to take at Eastbrook. 

I don’t recall a year quite as testing as this one, weather-wise. Snowstorms and endless rain until it was too late to drill spring crops on our heavier land, no grass at all until mid-April, and then a short spell when the grass exploded. And now, this drought, with continual heat that is stressful for stock…what a year for flies too…with some tough decisions to make about maintaining production now versus preparing for winter. Our thousands of newly planted trees and soft fruit are suffering too, and losses are high.

So far at Eastbrook, we have responded by moving onto once a day milking, and drying off quite a few cows early. This has allowed us to walk them to more remote pastures, and avoids the risk of heat stress during the afternoon milking. Yields have fallen by about a third, which is tough to stomach, but there should be benefits for fertility.

We took a lightish second cut of silage in the first week of July, and haymaking has been a doddle….but like most farmers, we have far less forage in stock than we should have by now. Imminent decisions are whether to put our rather spectacular spring wheats on the chalkland into the silage clamp, and if (assuming it rains sometime before early September) we should change autumn cropping plans to get some stubble turnips and kale into the ground for outwintering cattle, rather than planting cereals. Possibly some rye for an early spring bite too. We are baling every gram of straw we can find, expecting to feed some to dry stock. The upside is that harvesting grain is straightforward, with reasonable yields so far, and no drying costs.

What is noticeable too, is the difference between some of our leys. Lucerne, red clover and Sainfoin is still growing, albeit not fast, and I’m thinking it would be good to have a lot more of them, especially Lucerne, if this kind of summer becomes the norm. We are right in the middle of our new dairy build, a huge investment for us, and I’m wondering whether we should be investing in a reservoir to go with it.

The most unusual thing about this heatwave is that it’s not just here, but across much of the world. It’s hard to comprehend yet the potential disruption to food supplies and costs, and alongside the grief this may cause farmers and consumers alike, there’s part of me that hopes this will be the wake-up call that’s needed on climate change and the investment it will take to both mitigate and adapt.

At the Soil Association, we will do all we can to help during these difficult times. Do get in touch if we can be useful in any way, and it would be good to share survival strategies too.