Dry pastures push farms towards another drought

GERALD PIDDOCK
Last updated 08:58 04/02/2014
Waikato farmers should be better prepared to combat dry conditions this season.
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ

DRY TIMES: Waikato farmers should be better prepared to combat dry conditions this season.

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Low soil moisture levels in parts of the North Island have farmers worried that another drought could be on the way.

Areas in North to Central Waikato, Morrinsville through to Tahuna and south to Te Awamutu had soil moisture levels that were similar to 12 months ago when the region was on the brink of the drought.

The dry conditions were deja vu for Huntly dairy farmer Glen Ashford, who said the weather no longer surprised him.

"We're getting used to seeing this now. Up until Christmas we were sailing fine, it was looking good, but in the last 10 days it's really browned off.

"But that's North Waikato. It's renowned for it."

Ashford was well prepared for the dry weather. He is currently feeding out 10kg per cow a day of supplementary feed to his 290 cows, had pushed out his round length to 30 days and was milking his younger cows only once a day.

Eureka 50:50 sharemilker Mark van Hellemond said in the past 10 years there had only been one January where it had rained continuously.

"We're always guaranteed a six-week dry spell in January-March. At this stage no one's panicking or thinking it's getting really dry, but it's certainly got potential to be as bad as last year.

"The way it's tracking along at the moment, we're tracking along the same pathway as last year. That's what is worrying us."

His farm was not in drought mode yet and if the patchy rain that had occurred over the past few weeks continued, he would be fine, he said.

Van Hellemond said the current weather was the new normal for farming in the Waikato in January-February.

"We're certainly getting used to it."

The spring and early summer had been excellent, but since it had stopped raining it had taken little time with the westerly winds to dry the surface out.

He received 12mm of rain about 10 days ago, but this merely wetted the topsoil on his farm's peat soils.

Van Hellemond said he would be surprised if other farmers were not prepared for the dry weather after the excellent spring allowed them to build up their reserves of supplementary feed.

Production was also up and there was a high milk payout.

"We've got more feed on hand than last year and the payout's up on last year so we can probably afford to put a bit more into them."

The dry areas were more patchy, whereas last year it had blanketed the whole of the region, he said.

"There are even patches north that aren't too bad either," he said.

Niwa's January climate summary released yesterday said rainfall levels was well below normal in Northland, parts of Waikato and Bay of Plenty. Temperatures were also well below average for much of the Waikato and Manawatu-Wanganui regions.

Their seasonal climate outlook for February to April said soil moisture levels were most likely to be near normal from Northland through to the Bay of Plenty and Waikato.

Temperatures were likely to be in the near average or above average range and river levels and rainfall would likely to be in the near normal or above normal range.

However, the long-range forecast for Hamilton, according to the MetService, is for rain later this week.

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DairyNZ North Waikato regional leader Duncan Smeaton said the region urgently needed at least 50mm of rain to allow for good pasture growth and to avoid a repetition of last year.

He urged farmers to prepare in case the dry weather persisted.

"Having a plan and reviewing it regularly, preferably weekly, is key to getting through a dry summer. Early decisions can reduce the need for drastic measures later."

Waikato farmers should be better prepared to combat dry conditions this season thanks to the kind spring and early summer.

"But now the rain hasn't really fallen in January and right now we're cracking along on the same pathway as last year and we're a bit nervous. We're just on the cusp of things going wrong. If we get rain tomorrow, there wouldn't be a drought. It's just heading that way."

The northern part of South Waikato was also becoming dry, DairyNZ South Waikato regional leader Wade Bell said.

Hamilton south to Te Awamutu was looking dry as well as the Waipa zone. Pastures and soil moisture levels looked more reasonable further south into the King Country.

"But if we got these conditions for another couple of weeks in those southern areas then we would be starting to feel the pinch.

"Last year was extreme and we're on track at the moment to potentially be heading that way again, purely because of soil-moisture levels.

"I don't think it's as bad as it was this time last year, but if there's another week or two of pretty dry conditions we might be singing a different song."

- Waikato Times

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