Working with farmers and growers
“There is so much to gain from discussions with other stakeholders, so much to learn from each other, that’s a big positive for the AHDB.”Nicola Dunn, Resource Management Scientist, Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)
Farmers felt the benefit of AHDB’s involvement in the About Drought research programme, receiving up-to-date accurate and relevant information during the summer of 2018 from AHDB, thanks in part to the relationships formed with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Cranfield University.
“We were able to pull information together for farmers; explaining the current situation, where they could get help and actions to take when facing water shortages, stressed crops and stressed livestock,” says AHDB’s water expert Nicola Dunn, who previously worked for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
Putting data into farmer-friendly language
“We were really able to focus on the information that would make a difference.
“I had already made links with Cranfield, who were doing a lot of work on the agricultural side of the drought and water scarcity research programme, so knowing what they had already published, I was able to use it to help our audiences – the information was already there for us and I knew where to find it.
“We put this work into farmer-friendly language, covering what could be done to save water, reduce irrigation programmes and contextualise some of the decisions farmers were making, and suggest modifications they could make right there and then.” Nicola attended the About Drought Showcase in March 2018, as well as workshops around drought communications, monitoring and the UK Drought Portal. She says: “There is so much to gain from discussions with other stakeholders, so much to learn from each other, that’s a big positive for the AHDB.”
Impact on health and welfare of livestock
The crop and livestock sectors felt very different impacts during and after the summer 2018 drought. Crop growers are more used to managing reduced and restricted water availability but cattle farmers, especially in the North West of England, were facing not just water shortages, but also problems caused by the heat wave on the health and welfare of their livestock, poor grass growth and the knock-on impact on winter feed silage, already impacted by February’s so-called ‘Beast from the East’ blast of freezing weather. For them, the drought had a much longer impact and morphed into a feed supply issue, which was a serious concern.
Advances in drought forecasting
The monthly Hydrological Outlooks from CEH have been particularly useful for the AHDB. Nicola explains: “The drought forecasting and advances in how Standard Precipitation Index information has been used, was useful for explaining current situations, helping our audiences to understand it visually and combining it with work the Environment Agency was producing. We are now developing communications based on the outlooks, and the maps are a really good tool for engaging with farmers as well as colleagues; it really helps everyone to understand the situation.
“Following last summer, we need to do a lot of scenario planning for different outcomes, for example if we had had another dry winter, what would happen next summer?
“The main things About Drought have given us are great links with Cranfield, CEH and the University of the West of England. The AHDB couldn’t afford to fund such a large research programme so we certainly support this type of work.
“If we can develop forecasting abilities even further into something farmers can understand and use themselves in their planning that would be the gold standard outcome for us. I hope that we will continue working together, building on what the agricultural sector needs and supporting future research.”
Interview by Sally Stevens
Posted October 2019