Dangerously dry conditions for farmers

CHRIS GARDNER AND HARRY PEARL
Last updated 06:33 25/02/2014
MIKE SCOTT/Fairfax NZ

For farmers in Waikato's Waiterimu region, ground conditions are drier than during the drought last summer. Not only is animal feed getting low, it's making for worsening fire conditions.

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Tinder dry conditions are proving a headache for Waikato's rural firefighters and prompting farmers' fears of another ruinous drought - but little relief is forecast.

Temperatures are predicted to hover in the mid to late 20 degree Celsius mark for the next 10 days, with only a brief spattering of rain forecast for Friday and Wednesday next week.

The prediction doesn't bode well for farmers - some of whom are already grappling with ground conditions worse than last summer - or firefighters, who have battled at least three vegetation fires across the region over the past two days.

Farmer Ben Stringfield was today still coming to terms with a fire which tore through his property on Sunday.

It was still smouldering yesterday afternoon and Mr Stringfield spent much of the day dampening hotspots.

The blaze travelled through a 1km stretch of remote Waiterimu grassland, parched by the near-drought conditions, endangering farm animals and homes.

Two monsoon bucket-equipped helicopters tackled the blaze at Mangapiko Valley Rd, with firefighters called in from six fire stations as far south as Te Awamutu.

The bone dry conditions meant the wind fanned the fire, reported at 5.46pm, into life and it quickly spread, said northern fire communications shift manager Jaron Phillips.

Mr Stringfield told the Waikato Times that he lost about 8 hectares of pasture within half an hour of the blaze starting.

"I think that's mainly due to the long dry grass we have. Part of the reason is because we haven't had enough stock to eat it. Plus the strong winds have carried the flame."

The blaze started when an ember from an underground fire on the property, which was lit late last year, was carried onto the grass, Mr Stringfield said.

He said until Sunday the underground fire was contained within the firebreak that was created after it was first lit.

Waikato District principal rural fire officer Andy Baker said the lesson for farmers was to make sure there was no risk of the sub-surface peat catching fire.

A second blaze started at a Department of Conservation reserve at Te Mata, on the Thames Coast Rd on the Coromandel Peninsula, at 7.44pm on Sunday. It involved 900 sq metres of gorse and scrub.

Firefighters also battled a scrub fire on Waimaori Rd south of Raglan yesterday.

Thames Valley Rural Fire Authority's Del Read, who covers Hauraki, Matamata-Piako and Thames Coromandel districts, said the region had got dangerously dry over the past six weeks thanks to a lack of rain and persistent wind that had dried pastures out.

A restricted fire season is in place, meaning fires can only be lit with permits.

"It's very dry and we are asking people to take extra care," he said. "We could withdraw permits any day."

But the fear of fire is not the only problem in the country.

Farmers, robbed of any substantial rain since Christmas, are feeling the effects of the dry weather and fear it will turn into another crippling drought.

The grass has stopped growing and dairy farmers, arguably the region's largest industry, are either having to find supplementary feed for their cows or dry their animals off.

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Waiterimu farmer, John Nicholson, said this summer had been one of the driest in the area for the past five or six years. "Our water table this year compared to last year is a little bit better, but not much.

"But the ground conditions are a lot drier than last year due to the very warm winds we've been having."

Other farmers in the region are starting to feel the pinch too.

Whitianga dairy farmer Dirk Sieling yesterday stopped milking 60 of his 480 strong herd about 10 weeks earlier than usual.

"We normally dry off in early May," Mr Sieling said. "There's quite a few other guys drying off too."

"It's very dry and the prices of silage are skyrocketing, not double normal but at least half the price again of normal."

Ngahinapouri dairy farmer Charlie Shailer said his grass was down to seed heads but he was prepared with supplements.

"It's getting dry. We had 18mm of rain in February and if we had a couple of follow ups it might have done some good," he said. "It's cost us $100,000 in lost production, but we are in a better position this year than last year."

Waikato Federated Farmers president James Houghton was concerned with the prospect of another drought and urged anyone in trouble to call either Federated Farmers or the Rural Support Trust.

"It's pretty frustrating seeing rain on the forecast and not getting any," he said.

"The advantage over last year is it's not North Island-wide so far. It's localised in the Waikato."

That meant supplementary feed was easier to come by than previous years.

- Waikato Times

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