While modern livestock sheds are usually cooled with fans and sprinklers, ancient stone barns are also effective in the hot weather, according to Robert Martin, a dairy farmer with a 120-strong herd near Carlisle. Their design means a good circulation of air, and the stones help moderate the temperature inside. “The cows are very comfortable in them.”
Martin has also kept many stands of trees on his farm, which is benefitting the cows. Across the UK, much of this traditional shelter has been reduced, as farmers have removed or drastically cut back hedgerows to make for more efficient use of farm machinery. Without their shade, cattle face a hard time, as they are particularly sensitive to sunlight.
Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association, said: “We’d advise farmers to ensure there is adequate shade for livestock to escape the heat, which is why trees on farmland are so important, particularly at this time of year.”
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) advises moving affected animals to a shaded building, but in some cases – only on a vet’s advice – cattle can be given suncream if they have become sunburned.
Cows, like many humans, also lose appetite in the heat, and Martin has got round this by delivering feed right up to each animal to encourage them to eat and drink. “Usually at this time of year they are self-feeding in the fields, but at the moment I’m having to do it,” he said. He is using winter feed, or silage, to ensure the cows have enough food and moisture.
Martin, who is also national treasurer of the Tenant Farmers’ Association, said farmers across the country were doing much the same. “Farmers are very good at looking after their livestock. Every farmer will be doing their best, putting in the extra work. I don’t think there will be issues for animal welfare.”
Matthew Knight, managing director of the RABDF, said:“With the hot weather set to stay, farmers continue to face the challenge of providing the necessary requirements for their livestock. We advise all our members to focus on best practice, making sure their cows have adequate water and shade, providing additional shade if required.”
In the uplands, farmers reliant on natural water supplies were being particularly hard hit, reported Martin Lines, chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network. “Many burns are now dry, which is pretty unprecedented in recent times, and there are concerns that private water supplies to farmhouses could run dry.”
The economic costs will be harder to avoid. The dry spell has meant the grass is growing less strongly, and becoming parched. Even after rain finally returns, it will take three weeks for the grass to grow sufficiently long for cattle to eat. This means farmers like Martin are having to use up supplies of silage. Lines explained: “Fields are ‘burning up’, leaving less grass for the animals to eat. This will have a knock-on effect on winter fodder and some upland farmers have made only about a third of the hay and silage they made last year.”
To make matters worse, the heatwave has followed a long cold winter, when many farmers used up all their stores of feed as livestock were kept indoors longer than usual. Lines said: “They will be faced with having to sell animals or buy extra food from elsewhere, which could have a huge impact on next year’s breeding stock.”
Martin predicted that milk yields were likely to be down by about 15 to 20% for many farmers, and that Britain’s thousands of tenant farmers might have to try making representation to their landlords over the financial effects of the heatwave.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has opened a “fodder bank”, a free service to members that allows them to access feed and animal bedding, and lets them sell any surplus they have back to the bank, and said it would remain open as long as necessary.
To date, according to the industry body Dairy UK, there has been no effect on dairy prices to consumers. Meat continues to be threatened by the entirely separate problem of falling supplies of carbon dioxide, used in packaging to preserve meat products, but the situation is so far being managed.
Some sectors are less affected by the hot dry weather. Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said poultry farmers were challenged, but equipped. “All poultry houses have hi-tech ventilation systems that control and monitor the environment, and this, combined with the skills of our people, means the birds’ welfare is protected. Transportation in this hot weather is carefully managed: we reduce the number of birds on a lorry, maximise the air flow around them, and minimise the journey and waiting times. Our plants have cool well-ventilated areas called lairages, where arriving vehicles are parked and the birds moved from them as soon as possible.”
Free-range birds also always have the option of shade or shelter indoors or outdoors, and access to fresh water.
While many of the worst effects are falling on livestock farmers, Bowles noted that arable farms were also facing serious problems. “Due to a lack of rainfall and unusually high temperatures, it looks like yields for cereals, potatoes and other crops will be down this summer, which could lead to reduced availability in stores.”
Soft fruit, however, is enjoying a bumper year. The winter rainfall and wet spring that hurt animal feed supplies helped to charge up on-farm reservoirs for fruit growers, although according to the NFU some of those are now showing signs of running out.
Lines warned that this year’s weather could presage more to come, and that the government should take note. “Farmers need to be prepared for this extreme weather as it may become the new normal if we don’t accelerate our efforts to address climate change. This is why nature-friendly farming has never been more significant. Farmers need to work together to manage the impacts of climate change, and this action needs to be scaled up rapidly, with strong policy support.”