Adapting to climate change is key to future profitability

Sheep producers will have to face up to the fact – sooner rather than later – that climate change will have an impact on their current systems, including lambing.

Volac International’s Maggie Gould said: “UK temperatures are scheduled to increase by an annual average of 1degC by the 2020s and 2degC by 2050, according to UK Climate Impacts Programme.

“In addition, winters are set to become wetter, with less snow, and we need to be prepared to cope with drier summers.

“We believe we already have evidence of climate change beginning to impact on sheep farmers. Over the last five years, demand for milk replacer has extended into early winter/autumn and spring/early summer, indicating a lengthening of the lambing season.”

Farmers can exploit climate change and minimise the drawbacks if they are prepared to maximise their system’s flexibility while keeping input costs as low as possible.

That was the conclusion made by Richard Garland, rural surveyor with land agents George F. White, after completing a thesis on climate change and its impact on the sheep sector.

He said changing weather patterns could have the following effects on lambing:

• Warmer wetter winters could bring an earlier and more pronounced flush of spring grass, which would make up an increasingly large proportion of the year’s grass production.

• Lambing timing could be changed, for example by introducing rams two weeks earlier, in order to turn ewes out with lambs at foot on to the spring growth.

• Choosing a lambing date complementary to the onset of spring grass growth could lower input costs, by reducing the amount of concentrates and conserved material fed.

• More winter grass and milder winters may also offer the chance to leave ewes out to grass, rather than housing and feeding indoors. Increased spring and winter temperatures may even allow a switch to outdoor lambing. However, risk of poaching and subsequent pasture damage would prevent this on some farms.

• More continuous grass growth through the winter into the spring could provide opportunities for some to develop new enterprises and alter existing ones to suit the maximum market prices available. Some farmers could consider splitting the flock between early and late lambing.

Mr Garland said producers who had the flexibility to alter their systems to take advantage of the weather in any individual year or period of years would be able to maximise the advantages of the changed climate.

Those whose systems were geared up for one style of production only, for example housed winter accommodation, would lose the potential competitive advantage of increased grass utilisation through the winter.

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