Wherever you are, from the tip of Cornwall’s toe to the furthest reaches of Scotland, it’s been quite a summer. Temperature records have been threatened on a daily basis, the seaside’s been sizzling and even the onset of the school holidays failed to tempt rain. It’s bad enough in the city, with unbearably sweaty conditions on public transport and burnt-to-a-crisp gardens. But in the countryside, problems are getting very serious indeed.
At Coombe Farm, one of the mainstays of our business is dairy farming. At it’s most basic, dairy production converts grass into milk. Somerset is renowned for it’s lush ancient pastures that produce the rich, nutritious grass our cows turn into delicious, sweet milk. It’s our warm-but-wet climate that makes the grass thrive and that grass has made the southwest a producer of the very finest milk, cream and ice cream.
Normally at this time of year we’d have more grass than we could shake a stick at. We’d cut it and it’d be up to our knees the minute we turned our backs. Which is good news – we can store grass that grows in the summer to feed to our cows in the winter. It’s either dried as hay or fermented as silage, both of which are palatable and natural sources of nutrition for our animals during the cold months. This works in harmony with our organic principles and means the land supports our livestock throughout the year.
But this year, well, not so much. Although it rained and rained then rained some more through to March, it feels like we’ve barely had a drop since late April. Which has left our fields parched, brown and not at all willing to grow. What little grass there is contains far fewer nutrients than we’d normally see at this time of year and what we should be storing as our reserves for winter just simply hasn’t appeared. To give you an idea of how extreme this is, most fields that would normally be cut at least twice, ideally three times, between May and September have so far been cut only once and have barely grown since.
Farmers across the UK are worrying about what they’re going to feed their livestock come autumn and winter, as they’re having to dig into their stockpiles now. Normally the summer months are the “free” months, when grass does all the work and supplemental feeding is unnecessary. So if the hay and silage is used now, it leaves less for winter and farmers are also worried about the price they’ll have to pay for any fodder that is available. Some are being forced to sell animals for slaughter, as they simply haven’t got the grass to sustain them. This could cause a glut of meat now, with shortages somewhere down the line.
Of course, the year – and the summer – isn’t over yet. What we, and every farmer in the country, are wishing for now is rain. Lots of it. Not all at once – dramatic downpours cause more problems than they solve – but gradually and consistently. To soak through to the roots and coax the grass back to life, to give us hope of redeeming the year’s grass harvest. Because without rain, there’s no grass and without grass, there’s no milk.