It’s pouring outside as I write. Proper monsoon rain. The forecast has warned of occasional thunderstorms for weeks, but few, if any, have ever happened.
o the land is parched. In the last month, grass growth has slowed down to around 22 kg DM/ha/day, which is less than half of the target. As of this writing, it looks like our annual grass growth on the farm could be even lower than during the last severe drought of 2018.
Back then it was two months of relentless dry days that left the paddocks like scorched stubble fields.
This time it was more like death by a thousand cuts, with the odd downpour giving false hope that things were about to change.
The closest weather station is at Dublin Airport, where the long-term average rainfall is around 750mm. Over the past 12 months it has been about 550mm or 25 percent less than average.
For comparison, Teagasc’s Moorepark farm typically approaches 1,000mm, while Claremorris is again 20 percent higher. This year they are about 15 percent and 10 percent below average, respectively.
Thus East Meath and North Co Dublin is one of the driest parts of the country at the best of times.
This is usually an advantage in terms of cultivation, with dry conditions almost guaranteed during key planting and harvesting windows throughout the year.
This is one of the reasons why there is hardly any meadow left east of the M1. The narrow strip between the highway and the coast has light land that lends itself well to intensive tillage.
The downside is that willows burn faster here than anywhere else in the country.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit within the 280 characters a tweet allows, so this level of detail bypasses the environmental campaigners demanding that farmers reinvent our farming systems.
It is the same people who will ring the alarm bells when they hear that the number of wells being drilled and re-drilled on farms is increasing.
“Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” You’ll be happy to see farmers spend €20,000 to €30,000 on new wells in the often urgent search for additional water.
Again, the actual explanation is more complicated than just climate change. Undoubtedly, drier years will reduce our water tables over time, but well drillers do not find that water tables are significantly lower this year compared to similar dry periods in previous years.
But they are drilling to much greater depths than was common 20 years ago.
While back then a 100 foot well was sufficient to meet the needs of the vast majority of farms, the combination of larger size and more demanding specifications has increased the demand for wells as deep as 200 feet and even 400 feet.
The reasons are varied but obvious. The farm that milked 80 cows in 2000 will probably milk 160 or 240 cows today.
Not only the additional cows need more water. The milking parlors are larger, with more surfaces that need to be washed down twice a day, longer pipe networks for rinsing and longer washing programs required to ensure cleaner milk with fewer chemicals.
The potato farmer has also grown in size. There are very few breeders left with 50-100ac. Typically, the specialized grower is north of 200ac.
Longer periods of drought not only lead to lower yields, but also to an increased risk of blemishes.
Niche potatoes such as High quality lettuce varieties, for example, are virtually intolerant of blemishes, so watering becomes standard practice.
With the size, these growers can afford the €50,000 to €100,000 required to set themselves up for the job.
At the same time, siphoning water from nearby streams and rivers will be tightened as the cabinet passed new licensing laws last month.
Therefore, high-capacity wells and reservoirs are becoming increasingly important for growers.
The Greens are campaigning to get more farmers to develop alternative livestock, with horticulture regularly highlighted as having great potential.
But regardless of the horticultural farm, they are all water-hungry farms.
The Brassica grower must achieve consistent and regular seed germination to ensure the crop matures in time to meet the supermarket contract.
The fruit grower must grow indoors to ensure quality, forcing them to rely on fertigation systems that address both the plant’s nutrient and water needs.
The leek grower must wash any clay spot off the product before it can be packed into sacks and trays.
Keep in mind that there are fewer than 200 commercial vegetable growers in the country. When you concentrate the water needs for the whole country into a handful of units, with a relentless pursuit of ever more perfect-looking produce, you can imagine the strain on the wells on those farms.
If climate change brings us even more extreme periods of drought and wetness, water supply will only become an even bigger problem. Carbon may not be the only element farmers will have to contend with in the years to come.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/comment/darragh-mccullough-why-water-will-be-the-new-carbon-as-the-eco-wars-heat-up-41938713.html Darragh McCullough: Why water will be the new carbon as ecowars intensify