By Nigel Hunt
LONDON (Reuters) - Floods in southwest England and elsewhere have submerged crops and destroyed cattle bedding and feed, with the consequences likely to be felt for months, or even years, in terms of lower production of both crops and meat.
Britain's Environment Agency had issued 416 flood warnings and alerts, as of early Thursday, including 16 under its most serious category, indicating danger to life.
Thousands of acres of farmland in Britain are under water, with some submerged for weeks, although agricultural economists say it is too early to forecast how output might be affected.
"Of course there is a big cost to this but at the moment the big worry is making sure the cattle are fed and dry," said Chris Mallon, chief executive of the National Beef Association.
Some farmers have turned to social media with #Tractoraid on twitter providing updates on the progress of 30 metric tons of donated feed and bedding on a 225-mile journey by tractor from Yorkshire in northern England to Somerset in the southwest.
"At the moment people will be helping and people will be interested but once the flood water disappears and it is not as visible, farmers will be having to make sure their business survives and it will be very difficult," Mallon said.
The National Farmers Union on Thursday called on members to make longer-term commitments rather than immediate donations.
"What we now need are the pledges of fodder or straw, rather than the actual deliveries, so that we can call upon people's generosity as and when it is required over the coming weeks and months, when the waters finally abate and farmers return to face a fetid swamp," NFU regional director Melanie Squires said.
DROUGHT TO DELUGE
Britain has swung from drought to deluge in the last couple of years, posing major challenges for the country's farmers.
The country's then farming and environment minister, Caroline Spelman, called a drought summit in February 2012, a year which turned out to be the second wettest on record in Britain.
The rains led to Britain's harvesting its smallest wheat crop in more than a decade last summer and the latest drenching is expected to lead to more disease in crops and increased indebtedness among farmers.
"The fiscal impact will last long after the flood waters recede," NFU chief economist Phil Bicknell said, adding that the erratic weather has coincided with increasingly volatile prices for agricultural crops and created "a new set of challenges".
"It is difficult for them (farmers) to plan ahead. Where is the incentive for them to invest consistently, and we need consistent investment," he said.
Livestock farming is barely profitable in Britain for even the most efficient producers and cattle numbers have been falling by about three percent a year.
"The average livestock farmer last year made just over 16,000 pounds ($26,000) in terms of farm business income so any sort of repair operation (or) reseeding is going to significantly eat into those sort of margins," Bicknell said.
Dairy cows in parts of western England and Wales also normally start to graze in February as grass begins to grow, Derrick Davies, vice chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers said.
Davies said some farmers may, therefore, be running short of winter stocks of food.
The rains may also have disrupted potato planting which began in Cornwall in December and would normally be underway across southern England.
"It is too early to understand the impact of the recent wet weather. It may have delayed plans to plant some new potatoes in the south," a spokeswoman for the Potato Council said.
($1 = 0.6011 British pounds)
(Reporting by Nigel Hunt; Editing by Giles Elgood)