Last year's good spring is helping most dairy farmers weather the dry spell in Taranaki.
But it's still tough for Michael and Ruth Prankerd, 50/50 sharemilkers on Taranaki Agricultural Research Station's (TARS) former Normanby site that's now part of a farm owned by four Maori trusts. Te Rua o Te Moko is a finalist in the prestigious Ahuwhenua Trophy for excellence in Maori farming this year.
"It's probably similar to last year," said Michael Prankerd, who's noted a sharp decrease in pasture growth and cover in the past 10 days or so. The season had started well and while milk production was 10 per cent ahead of last season, it was still 5 per cent below target.
The couple have culled or dried off 150 cows and are now milking 300 cows.
It's better for his parents, Chris and Kathy Prankerd, whose milk production is still 9.3 per cent ahead of last season's record on their Tariki farm.
Chris Prankerd expects this season's production on the couple's high- altitude farm to reach 90,000kg milksolids, which will beat the farm record by 7000kg. "That's very pleasing in a good payout year."
The hosts of DairyNZ's Taranaki focus farm will dry off 60-70 cows this weekend but hope to continue milking 120 cows twice a day until May 10. "I have a lot more grass than most other farmers. It's definitely growing," said Chris Prankerd, whose average pasture cover is 2100kg DM/ha. The farm has received 93mm of rain since the beginning of February.
Around the province, March rainfall was between 10 and 38 percent of normal. It was at a near-record low around Hawera for February and March, with 37mm in the two months.
Farm consultant Debbie McCallum said the figure was the lowest recorded at the TARS former site at Normanby and the present site at Whareroa, near Hawera, since records began in 1977.
The figure compares with other low totals of 43mm in 1978 and 49mm in 1985 - far less than the average of 148mm for the two months.
Patea received only 6.2mm of rain, or 10 per cent of its normal total of 63mm in March, compared with 22.6mm last March. In Stratford, the total was 42.2mm, 34 per cent of the normal amount of 126mm and far less than last March's figure of 100mm.
At Cape Egmont there's been 15.2mm of rain, 18 per cent of the normal total of 85mm and more than 30mm below last year's figure of 47mm. At Motunui in north Taranaki, the 30.5mm rainfall is 38 per cent of the normal March figure of 81mm and less than the total of 46.5mm last March.
McCallum said pasture cover and growth rates around Taranaki continued to drop as the rain stayed away and were now at a similar level to last year.
Most farmers had been in a good position in late January/early February after making lots of supplement in spring. They were now culling stock and feeding palm kernel to maintain production. "We're going to need some serious rain in the next two weeks."
Rain was particularly important for coastal farmers and for those whose herds calved early. Farmers on the coast and at mid-altitude who had purchased little maize silage and palm kernel expeller would probably dry off their herds in the next two weeks. Farms at high altitude looked green but pasture covers were below normal.
Farm consultant Michael Joyce said despite the dry conditions, many Taranaki farmers were still close to record milk production this season. Milk production for the season to date in the lower North Island is 4.9 per cent ahead of last season, was 23.2 per cent ahead of March 2013 and is 29.83 per cent ahead on a daily basis.
Joyce said grass growth surged after rain in mid-April last year, so farmers were hoping for a repeat. However, they still needed to ensure they didn't compromise cow condition and next season's production by milking too long this season.
More supplement was made in spring last year than in 2012, so farmers were coping better than in last season's drought. But grass growth was declining rapidly.
The Taranaki coastal strip was particularly dry and many farmers would be moving to once-a- day milking or drying off their herds in the next three weeks. DairyNZ Taranaki regional leader Katrina Knowles said although some areas had greened up, there was little growth and the coastal strip of Taranaki was very dry. Quite a few farmers had switched to once-a-day milking. Protecting next season's production was more important than worrying about retrieving what was left of this season.
"Most farmers in Taranaki have had a very good season and have already achieved normal production," she said.
At some stage rain would fall and farmers needed to manage their supplies of supplement to feed their herds after rain, which would rot their pasture. "So they'll need supplement when it rains to make sure cows don't lose condition," she said.
- Taranaki Daily News