Few Irish farmers have escaped the effects of an exceptionally cold and wet Spring. With Winter conditions extending to the end of April, livestock farmers with high stocking rates have been hit very hard as they face higher  feed costs, land damage and reduced productivity. The graphic below shows the extent of the cold weather event across much of Europe. The experience of the past months will throw a shadow across the farming year, but it remains to be seen if it will have any long term impact on farming practice in Ireland or other parts of Europe. Will it lead farmers to reconsider their stocking rates or set aside a greater volume of fodder in advance of the Winter season?

Creating a Resilient Farm

While farmers may not have control over market prices for their produce, they can control their farm operations. Farming in Ireland has made great strides, with farmers using better grass management and breed selection techniques. Extreme weather events, like the one we experienced this Spring, disrupt farmers’ plans and point towards a need for better risk management. Lowering stocking rates or setting aside more fodder are two measures that lower efficiency but improve a farm’s resilience. When making plans for the future, farmers may look at this year’s weather conditions as a one-off that can be ignored. But recent research suggests that farmers should pay attention to shifting weather patterns.

Research into Climate Risk & Farming

Back in 2015, we held a meeting on weather risk in European agriculture at the University of Limerick. This meeting of farmers, milk processors and academics examined the financial and environmental impact of weather risk on farming.One of the speakers in Limerick that day was Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER). Dr. Cohen is also lead author on an important study recently published in Nature Communications, a top-ranked scientific journal. The study provides an insight into not just why winter conditions and severe storms are becoming more common. It also examines why they seem to be happening later and later. The general warming of the atmosphere and oceans that is part of global climate change is contributing to greater variability in Arctic temperatures. The study by Dr. Cohen and his colleagues at AER, links this Arctic variability with severe winter weather across the mid-latitudes. Specifically, they show that ‘when the Arctic is warm both cold temperatures and heavy snowfall are more frequent compared to when the Arctic is cold. The graphic below shows Dr. Cohen seasonal forecast for January to March. It clearly anticipates a colder than average Spring across much of Northern Europe, including Ireland.

A Global Effect on Farming

In recent years, we have seen several weather events that have disrupted food production across the globe. Low rainfall has affected crop production in Central Europe, the US and Africa. Tillage farmers at higher latitudes, like Ireland and the UK have struggled with excessive rainfall in early Spring and Autumn periods in recent years. It seems the fodder crisis that Irish farmers experienced this year is part of the climate change story and is an event that farmers will need to plan for. For dairy and beef grass-based systems, the effect of this disruption to the polar vortex is particularly important. It has the potential to prolong the housing period for livestock and increase costs for farmers.

Making Some Changes

How can these risks be managed better? Lowering stocking rates and increasing fodder surplus on their farms are two changes that can be considered. At FarmHedge, we are looking at other new ways in which weather risk can be managed. Our work includes a new low-cost weather insurance that can be linked to concentrate feed purchases. This potentially puts an upper limit on farmers’ feed costs during bad weather events. This is part of our mission to lower technology adoption so that farmers can access farm inputs easily and get the best value. FarmHedge aims to lower risks for farmers and among these risks are the higher costs associated with bad weather events.

A Sustainable Future for Farming

As noted by Dr. Cohen, “In the past three years, we’ve seen polar vortex disruptions in February and March, which have set us up for cold late winters.” These presents farmers with potentially serious financial and operational risk. This may not happen every year, but when it does it has the potential to severely damage the viability of Irish farms. It may be time for farmers to place farm resilience on an equal footing with farm efficiency. In this way they can manage weather risks before they happen and create a sustainable future for their farm.

About the Author

Dr. John Garvey is Co-Founder of FarmHedge, the new digital platform for buying farm inputs and selling crops. He is a Senior Lecturer in Risk Management at the University of Limerick as is actively researching new financial contracts that can protect farmers against extreme weather events. Information on FarmHedge is available on farmhedge.io and the app is free to download on Android and iOS. You can contact the author at john.garvey@farmhedge.io.