Drought-hit farmers fear winter

04:31, Jun 19 2013

As much of the South Island struggles with flooding, New Zealand's worst drought-hit farms are only just getting back in the green with many now wary of forecast snow.

A short covering of grass has returned to the big central North Island sheep and cattle stations, courtesy of an unusually mild start to winter.

Farmers' cautious stock management has also played a part, according to Taumarunui consultant Geoff Burton who said the region had finally had enough rain, with 40-50 millimetres falling so far this week and topping off dams.

"It's been wonderfully warm as well," he said.

However, farm finances had taken a big hit.

Burton calculated the drought had drained an average of $50,000 from each of the central North Island's 600 hill country farms.

On the big stations that would be worse, after many reduced capital stock by 10 per cent to 27 per cent and had spent up to $15 a stock unit on buying supplementary feed for the animals they kept.

"When you consider that their profit in a normal year is $20 a stock unit and some have half a million stock units that's got to hurt," Burton said.

Steve Ponsonby, who manages Kelly Land Co near Taihape, said the rain was welcome but grass was still short and he was still feeding maize to his ewes.

"We haven't had the growth they got in the country lower down - we've had bugger all growth," he said.

He said winter was going to be a "hell of a battle".

"If we get this snow that's coming up the country it's going to be pretty ugly," he said.

Burton said farmers had managed the drought well, allowing for more flexibility in stocking decisions, and banks had been supportive.

The big stations in the North Island snow country were run by "wonderfully resilient people". He had noticed an air of optimism returning to sheep farming in the central region, with farm sales moving again and at slightly higher prices.

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