An exercise in drought-proofing
Northlanders Ken and Janine Hames are among farmers building buffers into their farming systems to protect themselves against future droughts.
The couple have invested time and money in drought-proofing their bull beef operation at a 351ha medium hill country farm at Paparoa.
A water meter on a stockwater tank tracks daily water use and the speed of the water flow. Should the flow rise unusually they know they have a leak on their hands and can react quickly to the problem.
''Typically I get up a 6.30am and let the dogs out, then head up to check the metre,'' said Ken Hames. ''I know if there is a problem because the stock haven't started drinking yet. This is about using every bit of water efficiently and it's saving electricity and pumping costs.''
In the peak of summer the stock consume an average of 18,000 litres a day and when there is a leak this can increase by 20 to 30 per cent.
During the drought an undetected leak would have put serious pressure on their water system.
Stockwater is pumped from a dam to a header tank on a ridge and fed out to troughs at the many subdivided paddocks the couple have developed since they bought the property in 1998.
The main dam holds about two million litres and a second dam built two years ago holds 800,000l.
Hames said he put in the second dam after the nearby main dam got low in a drought three years ago.
''This year we had another drought and I had to pump water from the 800,000l back-up dam to the header tank because the main dam got dry. I put that dam in (for that reason). The stock can get by with less feed but they can't get by without water.''
Bulls enter the Hames' farming system as spring and autumn-born calves and are finished to about 540kg liveweight.
They got through the drought in reasonable body condition albeit at lower growth rates. Destocking much of the property early helped prolong paddocks of kikuyu grass, a species which carries on growing in dry spells and picks up quickly with rain, and allowed them to carry the rest of the autumn-born bulls through a dry autumn.
For many farmers and industry experts the idea of water-safe regions was ruthlessly dispatched by the drought and they are looking at ways to improve water systems to soften the blow of future events.
The ideas centre around using water efficiently under allocation pressures and backing up stock and shed demand with flexible water storage.
Policies to aid better water storage across the country need to be pushed through, say farmers.
Hames said his extensive stockwater systems gave him peace of mind during the drought knowing that his stock would continue to have access to water.
The Hames were winners of three award sections at the Northland Ballance Farm Environment Awards and run about 800 bulls on the farm and also have shares in two dairy farms near Wellsford with a total of 900 cows.
At one of the dairy farms about 140ha of the 208ha property is irrigated - an oddity in the province because of its contoured farmland and lack of wide rivers.
As tempting as it may be irrigation is off the list for their bull operation, but Hames is doing all he can to make it more drought-proof.
He said they had lived in the area all their life and they seemed to be dealing with more climate volatility.
''New Zealand's issue is not the lack of water, but about having sufficient water storage to use at different times of the year.''
Decent rain only arrived last week after the long dry spell and he expects lower stockweights will make an impression on future farm budgets.
This will be managed by tactical use of nitrogen and balancing stock numbers to achieve weight targets during the winter.
''I am preparing myself for droughts to come more often. We need flexibility in our systems and to be in a position to destock quickly. If we can do that we will have less stock in the same area and can get through easier.''
Hames 'do-it-yourself' approach to building the storage system by using his own bulldozer and a hired digger has helped him keep costs down to a low $39,400. The couple plan to build another dam to provide more insurance in the event of a longer drought.
Cost to build the water storage system:
•100 water troughs at $17,300
•Plastic piping at $10,400
•Bulldozer and digger time $7700
Total cost $39,400