Managing risk in producing food from your farm

Managing risk in producing food from your farm

If you think the nightmare growing season that was 2019 and 2020 was a one-off, you probably need to recalibrate your expectations.  The view of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEHC), is that years like this last one could be coming around a lot more frequently than we would like.  And whilst maximising yields and productivity remains top priority for farmers and the whole UK food chain, risk mitigation and building greater resilience into farming systems should become an increasingly vocal part of their language.

According to the CEHC’s John Redhead, 2020 was the country’s worst harvest for 25 years as a result of the poor weather but, unfortunately, this cannot be seen as a one-off.  He says, “Climate researchers generally agree that the way climate change will manifest itself in the UK is in wetter winters and hotter summers with less rainfall.  The UK is unlikely to see a smooth transition to a warmer climate in the years ahead with the increasing likelihood that it will be typified by periods of extreme weather with the result that we will experience more years like the last one.”

John Redhead also says that using inputs such as inorganic Nitrogen more carefully and in a way that gets the most out of them will be a key part of any sustainable farm production systems in the future.  “Such thinking not only makes economic sense it is also likely to benefit the environment and go a long way to reducing the causal effects of climate change in the first place.”

So how can we make ourselves more resilient and prepared for more variable and extreme weather?  How can we manage that risk on-farm?  Well, some of it is simple and old-school stuff:

  • Know your soil fertility by regular soil sampling.
  • Have a field-by-field Nutrient Management Plan, which includes how you handle and apply organic manures.
  • Use Ammonium Nitrate based products that lose less Nitrogen to the atmosphere as ammonia.

But some risk management will need some thinking for most of us:

  • Make sure that soil structure is right to a) make the most of all your Nitrogen application from manures and from the bag, b) hold water so that heavy rainfall is not so damaging and dry spells are less painful.  This will mean getting out and knowing what you soil structures are like and improving them to avoid compaction.
  • Make sure all your nutrient application are in balance to maximise the amount of Nitrogen that gets into our crops (grass and arable) – that means getting slurries and other manures analysed so that we know what we are putting on and how to balance them with bagged fertiliser applications.
  • For cereals, OSR and maize, thin about taking soil samples in February every year to assess the amount of Nitrogen you have in your soil for the coming cropping season.  This is really important when rainfall is so variable and Nitrogen gets washed through the soil profile. 

And the good thing about this is that managing is a win/win for your farm profitability and for the environment.  The more Nitrogen you get into your grass and crops, the more efficiently they will grow and give you more crop to sell, or grass and forage to feed, and the less there will be to lost to air or water.  So we’re not only doing our duty by the environment that we farm in, we are also producing food more efficiently and making our businesses more resilient financially.

To discuss the nutrient requirements of your crops, please contact your Wynnstay Representative or a member of our Arable & Forage Team, for contact details click here

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