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Saturday 18 August 2018

Analysis: All the warning signs of a fodder crisis were in the weather data

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Stock Image
Down to the last bail: "Imagine if you woke up and had no food to feed your family and nothing for sale in the supermarket, that is how bad this fodder crisis is" says Cavan farmer Hugh Farrell. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

One thing is certain - this will not be the last fodder crisis. The question which now arises is how similar problems can be avoided in the future.

The issue has been simmering since at least last November when it was raised in the Dáil in relation to farmers in the north-west and west. But it's a national problem now.

Met Éireann weather records provide a clue as to what has happened. Last summer, autumn and winter were wetter than normal, and the winter just past was colder than average too. Almost 80pc more rain has fallen in some parts of the country over the first three months of the year on top of this sodden landscape, compared with the corresponding period of 2017.

And it's been cold. Soil temperatures must be at 6C, according to Teagasc, for grass to grow. That's not happening.

The 2013 crisis resulted in an economic cost estimated at €450m. And in a world where the climate is changing, we can expect further problems in the years ahead.

Research by Dr Conor Murphy from Maynooth University shows that the years between 2006 and 2015 made up the wettest decade in more than 300 years of record-keeping. Average rainfall each year was 1,990mm, almost double the average across the previous three centuries of 1,080mm.

"The lesson from this year is wet conditions increase the amount of fodder required," he says. "Climate models suggest winters will be wetter and there are changing seasonal rainfall levels.

"It's important the risks posed by changes in climate we're seeing are built into our long-term strategies for climate adaptation."

Key is figuring out what is happening on the ground. Some 5,000 farmers are signed up to Teagasc's PastureBase Ireland database, walking their landholdings weekly and measuring grass growth which is currently up to 60pc of normal levels.

If there is excess growth, it can be used for silage. If there is a shortage, it flags a problem and farmers can plan ahead. Teagasc says farmers should be thinking now about their fodder budgets for next winter, ensuring soil nutrition is right and enough land is being set aside for silage.

"You need to be realistic too about the potential period you need quantities for," a spokesman said. "Your typical adult cow or bullock will eat one tonne of silage a month, so you can do the calculations to see how much you need."

New tools to estimate grass growth using satellite imaging are also being developed by Teagasc and partners in UCC. Coupled with data from PastureBase Ireland and local meteorological forecasts, the system should help predict how grass will grow at land parcel scale for days or weeks ahead.

In effect, it will provide a national assessment of the crop, and allow early warning systems be created by predicting poor growth rates or, for example, forecasting a late spring. Key to preventing another crisis is having information about what's happening on the ground.

The bigger imperative is to address climate emissions, to protect farmers over the longer term.

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