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Gloucestershire Business News

Agriculture: expert warns of 'washout' summer

A Gloucestershire professor has warned of dire impact looming on the county's farming business amid the ongoing "washout summer".

With many farmers as yet being unable to make hay, prolonged wet weather since the start of July is now impacting harvesting schedules – and a Gloucestershire contractor has described the situation as disastrous.

Nicola Cannon, Professor of Agriculture at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU), said: "This year, the usual summer schedules of many farmers, the length and breadth of the UK, have been seriously affected by the unseasonal weather."

And as a vivid illustration of the scale of Gloucestershire's problem, a contractor near Tetbury who supplies harvesting equipment across the county has told Punchline that farmers are now looking at "a salvage operation".

The contractor, who has asked not to be named, said that with July marking the beginning of his busiest period, the situation is already beyond critical.

He said: "I haven't sat on a tractor for five weeks now, and on a scale of 1-10 for harvest prospects, we are talking 10.5.

"The problem is that at the outset of summer we had perfect harvesting weather but nothing to harvest; now that crops are ready, we can't get out, rain on rape has washed all the seeds out... wheat is laid over. Every crop you can think of is in a bad way."

What crops that farmers are able to harvest in early summer often now are left in accordance with the Mid Tier environmental scheme, which prohibits cutting hay before July 1st to allow plants to flower and set seed, said Professor Cannon.

"However, this year there have been very few sequential dry days since July 1st, giving farmers insufficient time to cut the grass, spread it out, allow it to dry, row it up again, and then bale it before it rains again.

"Those farmers not signed up the scheme were able to cut and bale their hay in mid to late June, when the weather was hot and dry, but for those who did delay there is now a real problem.

Professor Canon said that excessively wet or dry conditions impact how plants grow, ripen, and store, which then in turn affects how they then taste.

"Even if the product is being harvested to be used for animals, it still needs to store well without going mouldy as this not only reduces the quality and desirability of the product but also can make it a fire risk.

"We all know the phrase 'make hay while the sun shines!' and the reason for this is that ideally grass is cut for hay and dries quickly on a warm and breezy day. It is no different to drying your laundry on a washing line - the thicker and the wetter the clothes, and the stiller or duller the weather, the longer it takes for them to dry."

In the UK, hay is traditionally made in July when the grass has set seed but before all the seeds drop and the leaves die, which causes in a big drop in the nutritional quality of the hay.

She added: "The problem is that if hay gets rained on when it is cut, it needs to be spread out again, and left for longer, to allow it to dry completely. If the wet grass lies in the field for too long before being baled, it can start to ferment which not only reduces palatability but also creates heat which can lead to a risk of barn fires."

Many farmers in Gloucestershire have moved from hay making to making silage as that is not so dependent on a dry weather window. Silage is baled at a higher moisture content and either put in a silage clamp, or tightly baled, to exclude air and allow anaerobic bacteria to colonise the crop and produce lactic acid which lowers the pH of the grass.

However, some farms have continued to make hay, she said, as it is generally preferred by the horse and sheep sectors and can conveniently be made into small bales which do not require machinery to handle.

"Others make hay as they have chosen to manage their fields to improve biodiversity by allowing the grasses and other species in the field to flower and set seed and there are even payments available to encourage farms to adopt these more traditional techniques."

With the continuing wet weather, farmers are also now facing the same problems with regard to harvesting their grain crops.

She continued: "The dry weather in late June this year saw a very early start to harvest for some farmers but in higher areas, such as where the RAU is in the Cotswolds, the crops were not fully ripe at this time.

The NFU has meanwhile echoed local concerns.

A spokesman said: "It's been a tale of two halves. The first part of the summer was incredibly dry. There was a lot of water shortages in some areas that stressed a lot of crops. So yields were low. Grazing was less available for livestock in some areas. People were getting quite stressed about that and then it turned out, turned its head and that's been really, really wet after that."

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