Farmers act to curb losses as dry spell bites

The lack of rain has Nelson pastoral farmers worried they are in for a savage summer.

It is already costing them a lot of money as dairy production drops and lambs are sold sooner and for less than expected.

Some farmers are already drawing up drought plans, and the two councils are on the verge of bringing in water restrictions.

With the soil 20 per cent drier than normal, farmers are worried they will not have enough grass or crops to feed their stock through to autumn, if enough rain does not fall soon.

A very wet and cool start to spring followed by a six-week dry spell and strong southwesterly winds that took moisture out of the ground have left many farms short of water and unable to make enough silage and hay.

Anxiety levels were rising, because much of the region was drying out quickly, said Federated Farmers Nelson president Gavin O'Donnell. Although light showers were predicted for this evening, no major rain was forecast over the next few weeks.

"We need one of those tropical cyclones to make its way down from Samoa and it could be a game changer."

Longer-term climate monitoring suggested the dry conditions could continue through to the end of February, he said.

Farmers had been reducing stock numbers in a bid to conserve what feed they had, with many being forced to sell lambs at lighter weights, rather than hold on to them to finish off.

With an 18-kilogram lamb selling for less than $90, compared with $150 last year, it meant that they were taking a double hit, Mr O'Donnell said.

Farm consultant Greg Sheppard said lower lamb returns were "incredibly frustrating" for farmers after the highs of last year and meant they were under pressure from banks to cut their budgets.

The dry spell was adding to their difficulties, he said.

Spring-sown forage crops were struggling to grow, which meant summer feed would be tight unless 50 to 75 millimetres of rain in several dumps fell soon to start growth again.

Dairy farmers are also starting to feel the pinch. Tapawera farmer and Federated Farmers dairy spokesman Martin O'Connor said the season hung in the balance.

While Murchison and parts of Golden Bay had received good falls lately, farmers elsewhere remained worried, he said.

Brent Boyce, of Farmwise, said some farmers were milking only three times every two days and several were on once-a-day. Tapawera, the Waimea Plains, East Takaka and parts of the Rai Valley were among the driest areas.

Those without irrigation were having to make serious decisions on how to make it through until their summer crops were ready, he said. They were culling their poor-performing cows, feeding out baleage and buying in palm-kernel extract as a supplement feed.

Milk production had held up well and, in many cases, had been on a par with last year's excellent level, but was now falling more quickly than expected, he said.

The weather pattern was similar to 2000-01, although not as severe, when the region suffered a major drought and dairy herds were dried off in March.

However, most farmers had been forewarned and put in place plans to cope, he said.

"It's a reminder we live in a summer dry place."

Dairy New Zealand Nelson Marlborough consulting officer Stephen Arends said dryland farmers were suffering.

"We are talking about having drought discussions before Christmas, but if not then, definitely straight after.

"If we don't get decent rain soon it will be diabolical."

He confirmed that milk production was dropping "unusually fast" and even irrigated farms were just keeping up.

This was partly a result of poor pasture growth. Pasture lacked quality and was quick to go stalky and go to seed.

With the amount of silage and hay made down by up to 50 per cent in some areas and summer crops struggling, some farmers had been forced to spend more on supplements, he said. One had bought 107 tonnes of palm kernel extract at 30c a kilogram to make sure his cows were properly fed.

The Nelson Mail