Opinion: the heatwave and drought have caused huge problems for Irish farmers which simply won't go away when the rain returns

It has been a summer with a difference in Ireland. We usually have cool, wet summers on our island, with the wet westerlies that give us lush pasture and the 40 shades of green we are so famous for. However with the lack of rainfall, very high temperatureswater rationing and a hosepipe ban, we’re all struggling to cope a bit. It would be an affront to any family to be caught using a paddling pool, especially with officers seeking to enforce the ban. With the winter as well as our island status, you would think we'd have plenty of water, but it seems to be a case of "water, water, everywhere/nor any drop to drink."

From the metres of snow brought by the Beast from the East in March to the recent extremes, it has been a tough year for farmers. What's next? Maybe the introduction of new catch crops such as growing grapes in Gormanstown or orange groves in Offaly? With mains water supplies low throughout the country, stranger things have been suggested.

Record temperatures and a lack of rainfall have drawn comparisons with 1976, Ireland’s biggest drought. I have memories of hauling water from the river in a tanker then to bring to thirsty cows. Forecasters say the hot weather is set to continue, probably for weeks, with no significant rainfall in sight.

From RTÉ Archives, a report from June 1976 when the country recorded its highest temperature of 32.5 degrees in Co Offaly

Some of the modern and ancient ways in which farmers are trying to cope with the heatwave include sunscreen, flavoured ice blocks and paddling pools for cows. There is a renewed appreciation for traditional countryside structures such as old sheds and hedgerows.

In today’s animal housing, ventilation systems and humidity controllers are the normal ways of regulating temperature. Our agriculture ancestors had their stone barns which survive to this day and are also effective in providing coolness in hot weather. The cows are very comfortable in these environments, more so than us humans in our too-hot homes.  

Tall cypress trees and majestic oaks benefit the cows in my locality. But across Ireland, much of this traditional shelter has been reduced, as farmers have removed or drastically cut back hedgerows to make for more efficient use of farm machinery. Without their shade, cattle face a hard time, as they are particularly sensitive to sunlight.

From RTÉ Radio One's Countrywide, Darragh McCullough reports on how farmers have been coping with the extreme weather conditions of 2018

Like humans, cattle can get heat stress and will thrive if they have shade and have access to plenty of water as they can drink up to four baths of water per day during this hot spell and the demand of water increases in line with the humidity index. Additional shade can also be provided for cattle in the form of black polythene silage sheeting being used as a make shift gazebos that are used for cattle to shelter under.

In some cases, cattle can get sunburned and can only be given sunscreen on a vet's advice  – I kid you not. It’s not just farms either: the job description of the zoo keeper in Belfast Zoo this summer was extended to slathering sunscreen on the pigs in their enclosure to make sure they didn’t become too crispy.

Milk is approximately 87 percent water and yields are down due to the heatwave and associated stress.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the current drought has increased the stress load on cows as water supply on many farms has been reduced resulting in an increased stress on the cows' immune system leading to a rise in embryo deaths in herds. My farmer friends are now placing huge troughs of water in the collecting area for the cows to drink after they are milked. Some are sinking new wells and others are using water from rivers to irrigate their fields. Milk is approximately 87 percent water and yields are down due to the heatwave and associated stress.

Cows also lose appetite in the heat, with farmers almost spoon-feeding their charges like kids by delivering feed right up to each animal to encourage them to eat and drink. In the summer time, our cows are usually outside grazing in paddocks. Many farmers have now broken into their winter feed larders and are using winter feed, or silage, to ensure the cows have enough food and moisture.

From RTÉ Radio One's Countrywide, how farmers in some parts of the country may be facing fodder deficits of up to 50 percent due to the severe drought

I am sure the cows would prefer summer-fresh grass compared to winter rations, but there is little for cows to eat because fields have been burned up, parched and scorched in the heat and sun. As a result, any grass is dry, brittle and dead and the soil has large deep cracks.

Even after the rain finally returns, it will take weeks for the grass to grow sufficiently long for cattle to eat. This will have a knock-on effect on winter fodder as there has not been enough grass to harvest due to poor growth. Farmers may be faced with having to sell animals or buy extra fodder from elsewhere, which could have a huge impact on next year’s breeding stock. 

To date, there has been no effect on dairy prices to consumers. Meat continues to be threatened by the entirely separate problem of falling supplies of carbon dioxide used in packaging to preserve meat products. Leading the innovation drive in Ireland, Dr Robert Ross and his research team at the DIT Agriculture Analytics Research Group are developing Flockguard to improve poultry health, performance and welfare. Developed in partnership with DIT Hothouse, the project has received Enterprise Ireland funding with our business partner PE Services. Here’s hoping that their next project helps keep the poor cows cool. Let's wait for some lovely rain.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ