Big dry torments farmers

SUE O'DOWD AND MICHAEL WRIGHT
Last updated 05:00 08/03/2013
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Burnt pastures and a blazing sun have nudged Taranaki farmers to the edge of desperation, while West Coast cockies and Canterbury sheep farmers are being hit in the pocket.

After a month without significant rainfall, they are calling on the Government to declare a drought in Taranaki.

Key agriculture officials gathered to discuss the crisis at a meeting in Hawera yesterday organised by Federated Farmers and the Rural Support Trust.

About 20 people representing DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, Taranaki Veterinary Centre, Fonterra, South Taranaki District Council, banks, the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Ministry of Social Development and the Inland Revenue Department attended.

The Hawera farm of Vernon and Deidre Cleaver is in the area hardest hit by the relentless sunshine.

The couple have culled 130 cows of their 800-cow herd.

"It's horribly dry and it's getting more difficult the longer it goes on," Mr Cleaver said.

With pasture dying off, two-thirds of his herd's diet now consisted of supplement.

Although overall production was still 4000kg milksolids ahead of last season, daily production was 27 per cent behind.

"Like everyone else, I'm making decisions day-by-day," he said.

Whether he could continue milking until mid-April was "in the lap of the gods", Mr Cleaver said.

South Taranaki Mayor Ross Dunlop said a drought declaration would acknowledge farmers needed support.

"It will ensure help will be available to farmers who need it," he said.

In the long-term, farmers in high-altitude areas could be more severely affected than coastal farmers because their grass did not grow in winter.

Rural towns were also being affected as farmers put away their cheque books.

Taranaki Regional Council director of resource management Fred McLay said rainfall in Taranaki was below average for the last six months.

Westpac agribusiness manager Aidan Gent said all the major trading banks were offering farmers financial relief packages.

Farmers should ask for help if they needed it and have a plan. "Everyone needs to have a plan with trigger points. If there's still no rain in 10 days, what's your plan?"

Fonterra South Taranaki area manager Rod O'Beirne said dairy farmers should focus on ensuring their herd was in good condition at the end of May to protect next season's production. They should contact the company if they changed their milking times so tanker collection could be sorted.

DairyNZ Taranaki regional leader Katrina Knowles advised farmers to prepare a timeline, working backwards from feed required at calving and including supplement for 10 days after rainfall because any pasture left would rot.

She appealed to farmers to take care of themselves and to keep an eye on their neighbours.

Meanwhile, West Coast cockies and Canterbury sheep farmers are being hit in the pocket as dry weather and low prices affect their summer production.

Dairy farmers on the coast, especially north of Greymouth, face an early end to the milking season in a bid to preserve feed for winter and are already watching their milk production fall.

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Many are using tonnes of supplementary feed to give their own crops a chance to grow before the cold weather sets in.

Barrytown dairy farmer Richard Reynolds was looking at drying off his milking herd at the end of the month, and faced a production drop of up to 15,000 kilograms of milksolids by then.

"This would have to be one of the worst [dry summers]," he said.

"We've got sheds running out of water [and] people looking at drying off two months early."

The Government has not declared the South Island to be in drought.

West Coast rainfall this summer had not been especially low, but it did not take much dry weather for farmers to start hurting, Reynolds said.

"We're not used to not having rain. Cow condition is falling quite rapidly [and] production's falling."

Niwa's rainfall recorders for the northern West Coast were all below average for the summer, but still recorded about three quarters their normal levels.

Across north Canterbury, rainfall was even higher - close to normal - but dryland farmers, those without irrigation, were lacking water.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand director and farmer Andy Fox said rain in January had been a blessing but much more was needed to grow winter feed or next season's lamb numbers would suffer.

"We are at the mercy of the rainfall and the weather. Things have deteriorated since [January].

"If we don't get any rain from now till Anzac Day it will rate a pretty bad summer."

Farmers forced to sell lambs early and at a lighter weight were suffering further from low prices.

"My average lambs I sold last year were $111," Fox said.

"This year it's going to be more like a $70-80 a lamb."

Scargill Valley farmer Chris Earl said a strong summer and high prices in 2012 made this year's dry easier to bear, but crops needed rain soon.

"We drilled rape three weeks ago and it still hasn't had any rain on it. It becomes a whole new ball game the second week in April if we haven't had significant rain by then."

Many Canterbury dairy farmers irrigated their land to protect against dry weather.

However, Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis said most now had restrictions or total bans on their water takes. "What it's basically showing is [water] storage is key.

"If we look at the water that was coming down the Waimakariri, Rangitata and the Rakaia rivers around Christmas time . . . if you can put a small proportion of that into storage it would solve a lot of problems."

- Christchurch City has no water restrictions although residents were urged to conserve water last month. Akaroa has level 1 water restrictions in place, meaning residents can water gardens only on alternate days.

- Fairfax Media

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