The weather is the enduring conversation opener, especially among farmers, whose work in cultivating the land for food production largely depends on all its vagaries.
Met Éireann’s detailed forecasts, supported by high tech satellite and other systems, are their guide in deciding the opportune time to plant crops, plough the land, begin the harvesting or bring cattle indoors for the winter.
Most rural people have their own way of predicting the weather based on tell-tale signs inherited from their ancestors, who formed their predictions on the flight of birds, cloud formations. wind direction, and changes in the planted world.
Centuries-old weather lore has it that swallows flying low are a sign of rain. A high flight path means dry weather and so does a red sky at night.
But bright stars indicate frost. Midges are signs of hot conditions. And distant hills looking clear and near are indicators of rain.
Farmers, along with fishermen, had to rely on these and other old sayings and their own observations in the past, especially during World War Two.
The publishing and broadcasting of weather forecasts in the neutral Republic of Ireland was banned under emergency powers during the six years of the war in case they caused offence to “friendly foreign nations”. Weather forecasting technology has changed dramatically since those days but rural people who meet each other at marts, on the streets or at any other gathering still inevitable ask if there is a hint of rain in the breeze or if the evening sunset is showing sign of a sunny tomorrow.
The impact of the weather on farming is particularly relevant at present with Teagasc predictions that the estimated output from the cereal sector will reduce by at least €100m this year following the effects of the prolonged drought which has severely affected crops in the eastern half of the country.
Total output of grain is expected to drop from the normal 2.3m tonnes to under 1.9m tonnes. Straw yields are likely to reduce by close to 25% of normal quantities with an estimated 1.6m less bales available. The drought is also affecting livestock farmers with grass growth severely affected in some areas.
Many farmers are already feeding some of their winter forage stocks to supplement grazed grass and concentrates. A higher demand for forages this autumn is expected with knock-on impact for feedstock prices such as straw.
Records have already been broken at many Met Éireann stations in the east of the country. This spring was the driest since records began in 1837 at the Phoenix Park.
There was less than 10 mm of rain, just 15% of normal, recorded for May at Dublin airport. This was on top of only 23% of normal rain for April.
Michael Hennessy, head of Teagasc Crops Knowledge Transfer, said drought hit at least one month earlier than in 2018 and in doing so affected crop growth much earlier in the plant cycle, reducing yield much earlier in the season. Recent rain was welcome for these crops.
Crops further south are less affected by drought. But the recent rains were needed in these areas also. It will help to maintain or increase the yield potential in beans, potatoes and other late harvested crops.
Shay Phelan, Teagasc Potato Specialist, said: “Potatoes got off to a great start this year. However, early frost damage was quickly compounded by very dry conditions forcing farmers to irrigate crops much earlier than normal.
Irrigation is a huge cost to farmers with each pass estimated to cost €250 per hectare. It has a huge cost in terms of man-hours to carry out the operation. Most fields will need six to seven irrigation passes this year not only to maintain quality but also to maintain acceptable yields. “ Conor O Callaghan, Teagasc advisor in Dublin said: “The loss of income to tillage farmers will be severe in many cases. These farmers have substantial financial commitments including employee wages, loan repayments and overhead costs. We can’t forget this is their family income for the year.” Teagasc are helping farmers to calculate and project cash flows to ensure they are in a better position to respond to commitments in the coming months.
Irish Farmers Association Grain chairman Mark Browne said the continuing drought is having a severe impact on the tillage sector.
Recent rains have been too little too late for many crops. At best, many growers will have significant yield reductions while in other situations, entire crops are a write-off.
“The situation is particularly critical right up through the midlands and into the east and northeast, where growers, in some cases, have practically closed the gates on crops which may not be worth harvesting,” he said Mr Browne said the combination of dry conditions and the reduction in winter crop plantings of over 40% are sure to result in a severe decrease of straw supply.
“It is estimated that barley straw availability will reduce by 300,000 tonnes and wheaten straw by 200,000 tonnes compared to last year. This is almost a 50% reduction in supply,” he said.
Mr Browne called on the new Government to support the tillage sector and urged merchants and feed mills to prioritise Irish grain and pay sustainable prices to tillage farmers.
The sector plays a critical role native grains play in Ireland’s food provenance credentials, in addition to its low carbon footprint.
Adverse weather conditions in 2018 had somewhat of a negative impact across a number of sustainability metrics, according to the recently published Teagasc National Farm Survey for that year.
Delayed turnout dates and extensive drought conditions led to increased use of feed and fertiliser inputs which had a negative effect on income and environmental indicators across a range of farm systems compared to the preceding year, it stated.