Coping during drought (& heat) in the short term

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Agricultural drought

The recent hot weather and low rainfall has resulted in an agricultural drought situation with soil moisture at the end of June the driest on record for the UK as a whole. However, it is not a hydrological drought situation yet. The July 2018 Hydrological Outlook from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology notes that, as a result of the wet spring, river flows in the south east, central and eastern parts of England are normal. However, the low rainfall in May and June has resulted in parts of the UK that are below normal or exceptionally low (e.g. northern and eastern Scotland, north-west and south-west England, much of Wales and Northern Ireland).

The outlook over the next three months is for river flows that may fall below normal or even reach exceptionally low levels. In contrast, supplies from groundwater sources (other than responsive limestone aquifers) are generally good at the moment according to most recent information on the water situation (see Environment Agency Water Situation Reports, Natural Resources Wales Water Situation Report and Scottish Environment Protection Agency Water Scarcity Report for reports).

DOs and Don’ts

You can – trade water with other users, use alternative sources, reduce or optimise water usage, use rainwater that has been collected and stored where the usage doesn’t require drinking water quality water to be used

You can’t – abstract more than your licence or exemption allows, abstract when restrictions are in place, take water without a licence, you shouldn’t allow livestock direct access to watercourses if possible

Is there an alternative source of supply?

  • Where possible switch water use to boreholes, issues are currently primarily with surface water abstraction.
  • Switching to mains water (where this is possible) is a more costly option but might be worthwhile as a short term measure – check with your water company
  • Trading water with other abstractors is possible though can be difficult to achieve quickly, you will need to check with the regulator to see if this will be possible (EA Water Trading on Gov.uk,Contact NRWor Contact SEPA)  

Top tips for livestock

  • Animal welfare requirements are a priority with heat stress the greatest concern. Sufficient clean drinking water must be provided to livestock.
  • Check there is sufficient good quality water being supplied to livestock and it is being supplied correctly, if transporting water in bowsers or containers ensure they are cleaned to prevent contamination of drinking water
  • Provide shade, ventilation and avoid handling in the middle of the day to reduce heat stress, check livestock more frequently and watch for signs of heat stress
  • More detailed information on heat stress and livestock can be found on sector specific websites:  AHDB Pork, AHDB Beef & Lamb and AHDB Dairy
  • Feed and fodder issues may be encountered later in the year as grass growth is down (seeNFU Fodder Bankfor trading opportunities)

Any collected and stored rainwater may be suitable for some on-farm operations to reduce the overall mains or abstracted water usage, see Effective use of water on dairy farms, Water use, reduction and rainwater harvesting on beef and sheep farms and Water Usage Tips on Saving a Precious Resource (Pork) for examples.

Top tips for crops

  • Check equipment for leaks and damage to ensure irrigation water is not wasted
  • Apply water as efficiently as possible, reducing possibility of losses through evaporation or runoff, remembering that infiltration rate of the soil is the limiting factor (a quick way to check infiltration can be found in theGREATsoils Soil structure and infiltration factsheet)
  • Irrigating at night where possible reduces evapo-transpiration losses
  • After the scab control period in potatoes, the allowable SMD can be increased to 30mm in sands, 50mm in silty or clay soils, seeSeasonal water management for potatoes
  • Consider your irrigation strategy depending on crop value and contracts e.g. should you irrigate less than scheduled across the whole crop area or irrigate to full scheduled amount but to a reduced crop area
  • Irrigation of stressed cereal crops may be worthwhile if the equipment and water licence is available
  • Collected and stored rainwater may be suitable to reduce the overall mains or abstracted water usage, though some activities e.g. crop washing require high quality clean or potable water so treatment may be necessary (see AHDB Horticulture website)

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