Visit to Harper Adams University: Exploring the impacts of drought on UK crops

On the 21st October, we visited Dr Ivan grove at Harper Adams University to learn more about the agricultural crop experiments taking place at the university and to plan an engagement event to share Ivan’s work with the wider farming community and other interest groups.

What drought research is taking place at Harper Adams?

Understanding the impact of drought on crops has wide ranging implications for food security in the UK due to potential loss of crop yields, reduced forage for livestock and therefore, milk and meat produce. Crop loss can also negatively impact farming incomes and the rural economy. The experiment will provide key insights into whether farmers in the UK will need to change the types of crops they grow or their water management behaviours.

Harper Adams are looking at the impacts of drought on a range of agricultural crops including Wheat, Barley, Perennial Rye Grass, Triticale, Durum Wheat, Quinoa, and Lucerne. The crops are grown in wheelie bins dug deep into the ground and exposed to drought conditions by controlling the type and amount of water supplied to the crops housed under a large polytunnel. Ivan and his team will monitor changes in the soil moisture, crop yields and other growth characteristics over a three year period.

Agricultural crop experiments

Agricultural crop experiments

Wheat is the UK’s staple crop for milling flour followed by barley which is also used for the production of beers and ales. A range of commercially grown drought resistant alternatives include lucerne, durum wheat, triticale and quinoa.

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Lucerne is cultivated worldwide and on large scales in North America, Argentina, Canada, Russia, Italy and China. Lucerne is used for forage, provides an important source of protein and is very drought tolerant because of its deep root system which allows it to access water.

Durum wheat is used producing commercially dried pasta in areas of low precipitation and is widely cultivated in Western Europe, North and South America, Middle East and North America. In the UK Durum is grown in the southern parts of the UK however, the costs of milling are high and therefore, may restrict the large-scale marketing of the crop in the UK.

Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye, as first grown in the UK during the 1970s and is highly drought prone. The crop has the potential for production of bread and other goods such as pasta and cereals, animal feed and for bioethanol production. Triticale has an equivalent nutritional value to wheat when used as animal feed however, the lack of current market demand in the UK means it is traded at a lower market price then wheat.

Quinoa originates from the Andes in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia and has been heralded as a ‘superfood’ which is very rich in protein. Currently it is only grown on a small scale in Shropshire in the UK.

What are the expected changes in UK crop production in the future?

Ivan highlighted numerous environmental and social impacts we might expect to see in relation to crop production in the UK as our climate changes.

  • The UK should be fairly self-sufficient in producing its own crops in the future. However,  importing crops during the winter from countries most affected by drought and climate change will increase costs. We are more likely to need to change how we manage and irrigate our crops rather than the types of crops we grow in the UK.
  • Vegetables are highly susceptible to drought because they need to be constantly irrigated. Vegetables do not have a deep root system for example, lettuce grows to depths of 30cm over its 6 week lifecycle whilst wheat roots grow to 1.5m and therefore, have a large profile of water to draw from. Therefore, we may see farmers moving away from the horticulture industry to invest in new income streams.
  •  Perennial Rye Grass is the standard grass used for livestock forage in the UK however we may see a shift towards more farmers growing Lucerne because of its increased drought tolerance.
  • New crop varieties such as Quinoa, Durum Wheat and Triticale are drought tolerant but will require a significant behavioural shift from the farming industry and consumers to sell/buy on a large commercial scale.
  • Ivan highlighted that prior to the drought of 2012 some farmers had invested large amounts of money to build reservoirs on their land to protect themselves during drought. Reservoirs are costly to build therefore, we might expect to see more farmers working collaboratively to pool their resources together and developing innovative ways to irrigate crops.
  • We may see an uptake in new technologies such as anti-transpirant sprays to reduce transpiration, protect pollen viability and therefore, crop yields under drought conditions.

Talking to Ivan and seeing the experiments gave us insights into the behaviours and concerns of local farmers and identified new groups to engage with. As well as dairy, sheep and beef farmers, it will be valuable to speak with vets, supermarkets and irrigation associations.  We will soon begin planning an event for interested parties to take place at Harper Adams in spring 2016. We aim to film the day and create a resource that will be made available on the project website.

by Dr Natasha Constant, Research Associate at the University of the West of England

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