Drought: A farmer's daily struggle

22:16, Mar 14 2013
BATTLING THE BIG DRY: Rangitikei hill country farmer William Morrison.
BATTLING THE BIG DRY: Rangitikei hill country farmer William Morrison.

Deep in the Rangitikei hill country, farmer William Morrison is loading 30 more of his cattle onto a truck.

Last week, he had to part with 20 others - a direct result of the long dry summer smothering the country.

Morrison is rueful and slightly disappointed to send them away from his sheep and beef farm deep in the Mangahoe Valley but it is a question of doing what he can to minimise the damage and provide for his other animals.

''I know all my cows. You'll find most beef farmers will know each of their cows quite well.''

Morrison is used to farming in hard conditions.

His 1200 acre farm near Hunterville is set across jagged unforgiving  land which rises steeply towards the sky.

This summer's record breaking drought has rendered his land the colour of burnt ochre and for him, there is not the option of feeding stock supplementary food like silage or hay - the land is too steep and treacherous for that.  

Instead, he can only open gates to let his animals find more nutrients and check on his rapidly drying up water holes.

He farms this vast pocket of land mostly alone.

His family and their business, Morrison Farming, own sheep and beef farms around the region - they've been working this land since 1862.

Droughts have already been declared in Northland, North and South Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay this summer. An announcement on the fate of the Rangitikei and Manawatu is expected this morning.

''I hope drought is declared,'' Morrison says.

''Much is made about the financial resourcing and the tax issues that that will enable. From my perspective in the hills, farmers don't really want that.  We don't need handout from the government, the only thing that can fix the drought is good, steady rainfall. For our mental and emotional states, we just really need the validation that it is tough out here in the hill country, and so do our families and so do our communities. Farmers don't want to complain. We're just asking for a little bit of understanding about why we are frustrated and stressed.''

It has now not rained in the Mangahoe since January and the soil is bone dry.

Morrison holds his pasture measuring stick to the ground - right now the grass should be more than two inches high. Instead, there is just a brown stubble. ''It's not even on the chart.''  

The ground is so hard, one heavy downpour would run right off the top - ''like a porcelain plate'' - Morrison reckons.

Right now, his days are long. He rises early, goes to bed late and worry hangs heavy in the air while he waits for the rain to come.

''The challenge of this summer has just been the slow, steady creep into drought.  

''I have 30 paddocks and at least 10 of those no longer have access to water. Without grass live stock are starting to nibble at other plants which has potential poisoning issues and I'm having to start selling stock.''

As well as the mental impact, farmers would be forced to absorb a tough financial cost, he said.   

''Most farms are multi-million dollar businesses and most of them will be hundreds of thousands of dollars worse off as a direct result of this drought situation. I certainly know that's the case of my business.''

The stress can chip away. 

''I guess people's morale has behaved like this drought really, our morale has just crept lower and lower ... farmers are getting frustrated. You don't notice it up here in the hills because a lot of farmers go into a bit of trench warfare mentality, they just batten down the hatches. Mr Farmer gets a bit depressed with the situation, perhaps his family get a bit anxious because he's a bit grumpy.

''I guess this drought just takes away your ability to farm as you would normally. Instead of normal daily activities ... I'm now chasing my tail as I check the health and wellbeing of animals, check the water situation ... it just gets me further and further behind. For myself and others, we start to sort of question our own ability. It's just a bloody battle.''

Last year, Morrison joined Twitter. He tweets updates and photos from the farm and shares the highlights and lowlights of being a sheep and beef farmer. You can follow him on Twitter @MorrisonFarming.