Mark Jelley – Dealing with summer 2022

Farm Facts

  • AHDB Strategic Farmer 2017 - 2021
  • NFU National & East Midlands Livestock Board Member
  • Northamptonshire
  • 500 acres of which 300 acres arable and 200 acres mainly ridge and furrow permanent pasture
  • 90 Spring calving suckler cows – mostly Stabiliser X with a few Hereford X Friesians

2022 is the driest season that I’ve encountered in my farming life. Here at Perkins Lodge, our average rainfall is 660mm, so far in 2022 we’ve had 259mm resulting in a massive deficit.

What I’ve learnt from working with AHDB is that we need a thought process before the drought arrives, and this has led to what I’m calling my ‘drought contingency plan’. It’s not perfect and it’s in my head rather than on paper, but it’s relatively robust, works for us and is heavily reliant on well thought out rotational grazing principles

Aiming to have grass ahead of the cattle in early June

We aim to build a buffer so that we enter June with something to go at. This year we managed that without a great need for fertiliser as grass was growing through the winter and into spring with the moderate temperatures. The buffer might look something like this where we’re in a rotation and we’ve taken the fence down. Cattle are waist deep in grass and suckler cows use this well. The standing hay crop can be used to bridge the gaps between rain spells. If we have a surplus of grass, we catch that later in the season taking extra hay or not applying late season bagged Nitrogen.

Training cattle to electric fencing

Rotationally graze with electric fencing as soon as you can, training cattle for later when you need them to respect the fence line. It’s vital so that they don’t break out if the fence isn’t working for some reason. We stopped our rotation at the end of May and the cattle have not broken through single stranded fences into adjacent paddocks or arable ground surrounding the leys.

Don’t open the gates!

Stop the rotation as soon as you get a hint of drought. When it’s dry you’re stuck, we can’t influence rainfall, but what we can do is prepare the farm to recover from drought. Leave grazing with a bit of leaf on it so it’s ready to go when the rain does eventually come. Overgrazing in a drought will delay your regrowth as the plant has to work hard to produce it’s first leaves and catch sunlight before it really gets going and can recover. Sacrificial paddocks will be required to keep green cover on rested paddocks, but rest and recovery has to be a priority.

Buffer Feeding

Droughts spotted early enough allow you to feed as required. We didn’t spot it early this year, but if we had, we could have grazed a standing hay crop rather than spending money cutting it and feeding it back to them. The quality is better as cut hay, but we’d have saved costs grazing it. Don’t be afraid of feeding outside, the cattle will be fine.


Using aftermaths isn’t rocket science, but new leys respond quicker to moisture than old permanent pasture. Think about grazing potential when choosing your silage reseeds, for us, Westerwolds hasn’t responded well to being torn at by cows with it’s shallow roots. However, grazing it with youngstock seems to work well with minimal damage to the plant. Going forward we’ll probably look closer at Italian Ryegrasses for the silage mixes to allow the option to graze if we need to.

Wean early and cull

We scanned 1 September with three empty cows from 90 put to the bull. We’ll be culling/selling cows to tighten the calving pattern, shorten the housing period and reduce the feed demand of the herd – we can’t afford to be carrying empty cows who can’t cope with the stress of drought over winter. We plan to start weaning bull calves at the same time too as cows with calves at foot need double the energy of a dry cow. Weaned cattle indoors (4-5 months old) will cost more over a longer winter, and we’ll be using some winter forage stocks, but we were already feeding that outside, so in my view we’re better feeding them indoors with better efficiency, allowing the ground to rest and avoiding calf growth rates stalling. Calves have averaged a daily live weight gain of 1.2kg/day but we can’t sustain that through the Autumn without running out of forage or making a change. The change being to wean early and allow the cows, with reduced energy demand, to stay outside.

What next?

2023 is the next hurdle – the cows aren’t the happiest although they’re in good condition and the calves could do better with more grazing in front of them. We will get rain over winter, but nobody knows how much, and we currently have a deficit of around 400mm. Some of the swards are looking gappy and a bit sad, so we are attempting to reseed now. I’m starting to think about what our contingency plan might look like where we expect dry summers every year.

Drought Contingency Plan

A normal season expecting occasional drought


New expectation of annual drought


Expectation of a normal grass growth season

Expectation of prolonged restricted growth?

Plan to mitigate prolonged dry weather before it arrives

Plan to graze through extended dry season with little impact?

Normal stocking rate

Lower stocking rate?

Conventional crop choices e.g. ryegrass based silage and leys

Drought tolerant choices e.g. multi-species leys, cocksfoot, plantain?

Expectation of sudden return to normal in or before Autumn

Prolonged issues beyond Autumn and into next year?

Normal year = Normal output. Drought years are ok but potentially at higher cost

Normal year = Surplus output. Drought years coped with well?