Crop failures and small yields likely as climate change stops farm machinery from accessing fields

  • 13
  • SEP
  • 2022

Converting farms from livestock to arable would lead to regular crop failures, according to an analysis of one the UK’s largest beef and sheep rearing regions.

The Rothamsted Research led study focused on the southwest of England in response to questions over what could happen to UK livestock farming communities as society shifts towards more plant-based diets.

The bad news for farmers is that the chances of successfully growing winter wheat on fields once used to raise livestock could be as little as 28% in future, as increased rainfall will make sowing the crop impossible in some years.

Forecasts show that in the absence of climate change, yields could be greater than 14 tonnes per hectare - but when the near certain impact of increased future rainfall on sowing and harvest dates were included in the simulation, it fell in some situations to less than 3 tonnes per hectare.

Lead author Dr Lianhai Wu said: “Adapting to the changing climate and changes in consumer demands will force us to diversify land from its current uses. Livestock grazing is the main type of farming across the west of the British Isles and it has been suggested that grasslands in the region could be converted to other land uses, such as growing cereal crops.

“However, our simulations suggest that, for the southwest of England and regions under a similar combination of soil types and climates, planting winter wheat between October and December would be impossible in some years because of constraints on soil ‘workability’.”

‘Workability’ is defined as the ability of a soil to support being ploughed, and along with ‘trafficability’ – the capacity of soil to support heavy farm machinery without becoming damaged – is determined in part by the weather, soil properties, and the previous impact of machinery.

On arable land, unsuitable soil conditions during the sowing or harvest periods will decrease yield if sowing or harvest are delayed - or even prevent it entirely.

The study, which also involved SRUC, looked at three soil types common across the southwest, under the current climate and three climate predictions from the Met Office.

Across the soil types and climate scenarios, the chances of successfully sowing winter wheat between October and December ranged from 28 to 76%, whilst harvesting was predicted to be less impacted by the predicted increases in rainfall.

The climate models show the number of heavy rain days, those with more than 2cm of rain, will increase in the southwest from 6, to as many as 17 days a year, by the end of the century.

Delays to sowing and failure to harvest a crop in some years due to wet weather made the idea of conversion to arable a “non-starter” for livestock farmers in the southwest, said Dr Wu.

“But the question still remains – if we are going to eat less meat and rear less livestock, what happens to these farmers and these farming areas?”

The study also looked at the implications for soil carbon storage and greenhouse gas emissions if grassland cut three times a year to provide silage, was converted to winter wheat.

Including two other greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane, in the calculations, it showed that whilst the average greenhouse gas emissions from soil growing ryegrass were higher than from the same land converted to wheat, this was compensated for by the greater amounts of carbon stored within the ryegrass.

Grasses return more of this carbon to the soil after they die, and as such, carbon stocks declined annually after converting grassland to wheat by 165 - 280 kg of carbon per hectare, depending on climate scenario and soil type.

“Grassland conversion in the region would not be sustainable in terms of carbon sequestration although applications of livestock manure or other organic materials could mitigate soil C losses to some extent,” said Dr Wu

“In terms of storing carbon in the soil, converting grassland to winter wheat is therefore unsustainable in areas with soils and climates similar to the southwest of England, such as many other areas in the UK and northern Europe.”

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes

About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.