Farming opinion: Extreme farming: coping with all the weather has to throw at us

Rob Stacey and his friend Phil Brooks in Canada.

Rob Stacey and his friend Phil Brooks in Canada. - Credit: Archant

For many people farming may seem an occupation that is slightly idyllic, a vocation with a pleasant lifestyle. But farming is also about being a business and surviving in the modern fast-moving world. Like other businesses we are heavily influenced by situations outside our control, whether it be supply and demand, politics, currency fluctuations, legislation and, of course, the weather.

Farmer Rob Stacey, of West Headingfield.

Farmer Rob Stacey, of West Headingfield. - Credit: Archant

Many of us will recall the devastating floods in Somerset and the unseasonal spring blizzards in Cumbria that killed so many sheep and lambs. More recently there was flooding in Spain that resulted in English supermarkets rationing sales of lettuces, all of which got me thinking about how farms in other countries manage with weather extremes.

I have a good friend who lives and works on a farm in Alberta, Canada, near the small town of Wetaskiwin. In December I took my leave from a balmy Essex and headed off to the frozen wastes of the Canadian prairies for a 10 day busman’s holiday. The farm I stayed on covers about 2000 acres, half of which is arable growing wheat, barley and canola (oilseed rape). The rest is grass, supporting a herd of about 250 breeding cattle producing beef, mainly for McDonalds.

Canadian winters are not for the faint-hearted. They normally start in late September or early October and can continue until April often with temperatures down to -30 centigrade or below, along with a covering of snow for most of the time.

Although the crops they grow are the same as here, that’s where the similarities end. They are all spring sown, as autumn-sown crops would not survive the harsh winter. Farmers only have one opportunity to plant crops, normally in May or June, whereas UK farmers can plant either in the autumn or spring.

A scene from the farm in Canada where Rob Stacey stayed.

A scene from the farm in Canada where Rob Stacey stayed. - Credit: Archant

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The growing season in Canada is quite short at about 90 to 100 days from planting to harvest, with the majority of crops being swathed, a bit like cutting grass for hay, and then left in the field to ripen before the combine harvester moves in to gather up the crop. Unfortunately, when I was out there thousands of acres remained unharvested as there had been a very wet end to summer, followed by very early snow fall in late September, when a lot of crops were almost ready to harvest.

The farmers I spoke to said that the weather had been very unusual and unpredictable. When asked if the crops would survive the winter, they felt that, if it stayed frozen hard, then the rapeseed might be salvageable but the wheat and barley could well get eaten by mice, as they can survive under the straw swath. I did actually see one combine working on 4 December, trying to salvage some wheat.

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As for the cattle, you would have thought they would be tucked up in nice warm sheds during the winter, but all the young stock are in open corrals near the farm buildings while the older cattle stay out in the fields all winter.

Although it can be numbingly cold, it is also very dry, unlike our winters, so as long as they are well fed and have access to water from heated water tanks they don’t appear to be any the worse for staying outside.

With these sorts of temperatures there is no white frost on the trees and you cannot make a snowball, all due to an almost complete lack of moisture. When I last spoke to my friend on March 10 he said they were still at around -22 centigrade.

That is a brief look at farming in another part of the world. All businesses have to deal with different influences but it is the extremes that really have the biggest impact, with perhaps the weather being the biggest of all.

Maybe next winter I’ll head off to a warmer climate and see how farmers manage there.

Robert Stacey is a fourth generation farmer from Chelmsford, Essex, working in a family partnership of 1000 acres growing combinable crops. He is NFU council delegate for Essex.

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