Rain brings some relief to Hawke's Bay farmers

MICHAEL BERRY AND MICHAEL DALY
Last updated 19:25 05/02/2013

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Farmers on the east coast of the North Island were finally able to enjoy the sound of falling rain today after a long, hot dry spell.

While much of the country received some relief from the skies yesterday, farmers in Gisborne and Hawke's Bay got little more than a whiff of moisture.

Today Hawke's Bay farmers were hoping a visit from new Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy to see the impact of the long dry weather might coincide with a change in the weather. This time, at least, a politician did not disappoint.

"We've had some rain today. It's been very encouraging," Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills, of Hawke's Bay, said. "And the temperature's dropped almost 20 degrees (celsius), from a stinking hot February yesterday we've got quite a bitter southerly coming through."

The rain had moved into Hawke's Bay overnight and today, with around 25mm falling on his farm just a little north of Napier, Wills said.

"This weather pattern brought rain to most of the country, not enough to put an end to the dry spell, but certainly enough to give a breather."

It had given some confidence to farmers, some of whom had not seen rain in months.

"It just reminds us that it can rain."

ANZ rural economist Con Williams said that from the perspective of the economy, the rain which fell in Waikato and other dairying areas in the North Island would be important to ensure a good end to the dairy season.

Weather stations around Waikato had recorded 30mm to 50mm of rain which should be enough to keep them going for now. In the previous 10 days the region had become quite dry.

Despite the dry summer, dairy farmers looked likely to top last year's all-time record due to a strong first half when production had been 6 per cent up on a year earlier.

"So to a certain extent, there's milk in the vat for this financial year," Williams said.

Much of the rise in milk production in the first half was due to higher cow numbers, rather than more production from each animal. Also, much of it was driven out of the South Island, with quite a bit of irrigation in Canterbury and  some good rain in mid-January.

While the area from Gisborne to Wairarapa could probably do with some more rain, the amount that fell today was a good start.

HOT WEATHER PLAYS PART IN CUTTING INCOMES

Earlier today Wills, of Hawke's Bay, said the region was still about a month away from possibly declaring a drought but some farms were getting exceedingly dry, especially those south of Hastings.

Steady rain would be needed to turn the dry conditions around, he said.

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However, these were the usual prayers of an east coast farmer, returning after a few years of more hospitable weather, he said.

"The east coast has been spoilt for the last two years.

"Especially when you talk to the old-timers up here, they say it's the east coast, it always gets hot and dry in summer."

The meat works were running ahead of the past few years as farmers sold surplus lambs and stock, he said.

Higher commodity prices and a ballooning dollar combined with the hotter weather to cut many sheep and beef farmers' incomes by at least a third, he said.

The number of lambs killed in the North Island has jumped 21 per cent on last year, according to Agrifax.

Because of that, less money was likely to filter through the farming community this year, he said.

"So the economy's going to feel this, right through to the cities."

Canterbury foothills farmer and Federated Farmers meat and fibre chairwoman Jeanette Maxwell said pastures to the north of the region and northern Otago were very brown and dry.

It was an El Nino year - "a proper summer" - which had not been seen for a few years, she said.

Temperatures hitting the high 20s and early-30 degrees Celsius day after day and little rain meant less grass and the need to sell off surplus stock, she said. After two mild summers that enabled farmers to fatten all stock before selling them to the meat works, the dry weather meant a pay cut of about 35 per cent, she said. But it followed two years of high revenue for most sheep and cattle farmers.

The average price for lamb had fallen because of the dismal overseas market, the resulting much lower price offered by meat processors, and the rise in stock being sold.

RAIN FAILS TO EASE 'DIABOLICAL' DRY SPELL: FARMERS

Stratton Giblin, a sheep and beef farmer 12 kilometres east of Waipukurau, said the situation was "pretty diabolical".

"We need a week of easterlies and gentle rain where you get four or five inches. Then you'd need a follow-up [of rain] too a couple of weeks later to get the grass pumping. We've had bugger-all rain since October."

He had sent 170 cows and 800 ewes away for grazing.

"I've sold 300 ewes in the ewe fair back in January. Now I'm contemplating whether to sell my 15 month steers."

The drought wasn't as bad as 2007, but not far off.

"The stock are still in good order, it's still early in the year, but with the 2007 drought it didn't rain until early June.

"You need luck farming, you need grass and you need rain."

David Hunt, a Central Hawke's Bay dairy and bull beef farmer, said yesterday's rain had not even wet the ground, and would not have registered in the rain gauges on his farms. His dairy farm had had about 60ml of rain since mid-August and he had been one of the lucky ones.

"The difference this year is that the dry started so early. The problem is we're having a normal Hawke's Bay summer after an excessively dry spring. It's becoming extremely concerning."

He had killed all the stock he could, and selling other stock that still needed fattening on the store market was becoming "almost impossible", as most of the North Island was suffering the same dry conditions.

"It really doesn't matter what you're willing to sell your stock for, there's really no buyers out there.

"If we get good rain this month, we'll probably wipe our brows and say, ‘OK we got there', but if it doesn't rain till April or May then it will be a complete disaster."

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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