The external thermometer on my car registered -11.5°C through Radley Bottom as I returned home from the Reading University lecture last month. The Beast from the East was a shock to the system conditioned by a run of mild, wet winters, and brought some disruption, thankfully short-lived.
But it should not have been unexpected as such weather is not uncommon at this time of year. As recently as 2013, there was a long hard freeze with strong easterly winds that lasted into April, caused by the same meteorological conditions as now. March that year was the coldest for 51 years, back to the arctic winter of 1962/3. I remember that season at school as I had just taken up rowing but we could not take a boat out as the river was frozen throughout the spring term!
Spring is at least a fortnight late and, as I write this, we are promised more cold easterly winds with the threat of snow. The winter past, surprisingly, was the second sunniest on record with low rainfall, especially in February. Since then, March has been remarkably wet, which is a relief to water companies as aquifers and reservoirs begin to recover, reducing the threat of a drought this summer. So what are the implications for farming?
Winter crops can suffer from harsh weather in several ways. Hard frosts with bitter easterly winds can burn the growth of the plants, whilst prolonged snow cover can bring snow rot, a fungal disease particularly of barley. If there is alternate frost and thaw, the surface of the soil can lift, breaking the stems of the plants from the roots in the frozen soil. The recent cold spell was not sufficiently harsh or prolonged to cause any of these problems. Indeed, winter crops have come into spring in reasonably good shape.
The soil is cold and wet, however, so there has been virtually no planting of spring crops yet. The problems of controlling the blackgrass epidemic have led many farmers to grow more spring crops in the hope of killing the weeds before sowing. That has not been possible so they are faced with drilling their crops late into poor seedbeds, unless the weather picks up soon. In years gone by, when broader rotations brought more spring cropping, stubbles were left after harvest and heavy land ploughed before Christmas to allow frost to break down the clods so that a fine seedbed could be achieved in spring. But the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
Ploughing is expensive and time consuming so is a last resort on most farms today. Besides, climate change has brought heavier rainfall so leaving soils bare over winter invites soil erosion and is thus not recommended. Overall the prospects for spring crops diminish by the day. Nevertheless, nature has remarkable powers of recovery and it is a long time yet to harvest.
Many farmers locally are turning to growing crops for the anaerobic digestion plant near Andover. Winter rye is harvested early, before blackgrass has a chance to seed so is helpful in that respect. Maize is not planted until late April or May so again, there is the chance to control blackgrass. One local farmer is growing winter rye and maize for the AD plant on two-thirds of his farm, a sign of the times.
The biggest impact of this spring’s weather is on livestock. Grass is growing in some sheltered valleys but generally pastures are wet and short of herbage. At one time it was common to grow short term leys for sheep grazing with varieties giving early bite, but economic factors mean that sheep are now primarily only kept on permanent pasture.
Last week, of the Cheltenham Festival and St Patrick’s Day, is the traditional time for the start of lambing. Very few shepherds lamb outdoors in March due to the fickle weather so ewes and their lambs are cosy in sheds, but conditions are not good for turning them out. Mother’s milk is important to the development of her lambs, but will not have the quantity or quality if there is little grass to eat. This means the expense of supplementary feeding. Lambs can survive dry cold or warm rain but the combination of cold and wet is lethal, so the forecast of snow is not helpful. Scans of ewes earlier in pregnancy indicated a high percentage this year so an improvement in weather and grass growth could help towards an excellent season, especially as lamb prices are at record levels.
Back in my farming days, I tried early lambing to achieve higher prices for spring lamb. Having said that ewes and lambs are snug in sheds, I remember that February many years ago when one day the temperature inside the lambing shed failed to reach -5°C! One of us spent the whole day trying to thaw out pipes so the ewes had water to drink. I also remember taking a bale of straw when feeding cattle out-wintered on the downs to burn under the water troughs to thaw out the pipes.
So the Beast from the East may have had little significant impact upon farming except for those dairy farmers cut off by drifts who had to throw away the milk for several days or those with livestock out on the hills that had to be dug out of the snow but a cold late spring can never be good news. Daffodils may have flowered in February but we seem a long way from balmy weather yet.