New Zealand farmers will have less to sell than usual this autumn as several regions slide into drought, creating a "weak tail" to the main primary production season, says a leading rural bank.
"Seasonal conditions have pulled the end of the season forward for North Island suppliers, as soils dried out in March," Rabobank says in its Agribusiness report.
"South Island producers have continued to fare better, with drier East Coast conditions offset by the availability of irrigation water, and favourable conditions."
The north and east of the North Island, and parts of Canterbury and Otago were extremely dry in March, with Auckland experiencing a record low rainfall for the month.
It was also dry over the remainder of the North Island and Nelson, but Fiordland and parts of Southland received around 120 percent of their normal rainfall.
Severe soil moisture deficits continue in Northland, Auckland, South Canterbury and Otago and dry soils have developed in Waikato, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Taupo and parts of Gisborne and Hawke's Bay.
Drought was declared in Northland in January, and the Government said today four North Island regions - Waikato, Rodney, Papakura and Manukau - have been declared medium-level drought zones where farmers can apply for help including tax assistance, management advice, welfare support and funding for rural support trusts.
Agriculture Minister David Carter said the situation was grim and there was no immediate relief in sight: without adequate rain, many farmers will face feed shortages for their livestock this winter.
Farming areas in lower South Canterbury and Otago may also be declared a drought zone if they get much drier.
Rabobank said the El Nino weather pattern which dominated the spring and summer was showing signs of weakening, with neutral conditions predicted by winter.
While the El Nino had peaked, it was expected to continue to influence worldwide climatic patterns up to mid-year before dying out.
For the three months to June, mean temperatures were likely to be above the long-term average in most parts of the country - with cold snaps as winter begins - and there would be near normal seasonal rainfalls in most places, the bank analysts said.
But soil moisture levels and stream flows were likely to remain below normal for the April-June period in the north and east of the North Island and a similar situation was very likely in the east of the South Island.
An extended drought would hit particularly hard in Northland, where some farmers have been forced to apply for financial assistance after five months without significant rain - reported to be the worst drought there in 40 years.
Northland Rural Support Trust co-ordinator Helen Moody said some sheep and beef farmers had found they had not destocked enough to cope with the dry conditions and they were now having to sell stock at very low prices.
Northland Regional Council hydrologist Dale Hansen said the Far North would need steady rainfall totalling 100-150mm over a two-week period to break the drought.
In the meantime, rivers around Kaitaia, Hokianga and east coast areas as far south as Whangarei were at critically-low levels.
"The drought has now lasted so long, it will take some time for the moisture level in soils to return to anything like normal," Mr Hansen told the Northern Advocate. "The same goes for groundwater levels and river flows."
Is it time for authorities to introduce tougher penalties for poaching?Related story: Booby traps for poachers cost farmers