Dry spell hits pastoral farmers

MICHAEL BERRY
Last updated 07:50 05/02/2013

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In a return to form, dry weather on the east coast of both islands has cut some sheep and beef farmers' incomes by up to a third, Federated Farmers says.

Canterbury foothills farmer and Federated Farmers meat and fibre chairwoman Jeanette Maxwell said pastures to the north of the region and the northern Otago area were very brown and dry.

It was an El Nino year - "a proper summer" - which had not been seen for a few years, she said.

Temperatures hitting the high 20s and early 30 degrees Celsius day after day and little rain meant less grass and the need to sell off surplus stock, she said.

After two mild summers that gave farmers the ability to fatten all stock before selling them to the meatworks, the dry weather meant a pay cut of about 35 per cent, she said.

But it followed two years of high revenue for most sheep and cattle farmers, she said.

The average price for lamb had fallen due to the dismal overseas market, the considerably lower price offered by meat processors because of that and the rise in stock being sold.

Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills, of Hawke's Bay, said the region was still about a month away from possibly declaring a drought but some farms were getting exceedingly dry, especially those south of Hastings, he said.

A few showers were forecast, but a long-term easterly change with a few days of steady rain would be needed turn the climate around, he said.

However, these were the usual prayers of an east coast farmer, returning after a few years of more hospitable weather, he said.

"The east coast has been spoilt for the last two years.

"Especially when you talk to the old-timers up here, they say it's the east coast, it always gets hot and dry in summer."

The meatworks were running ahead of the past few years as farmers sell off surplus lambs and stock, he said.

Higher commodity prices and a ballooning dollar combined with the hotter weather to cut many sheep and beef farmers' incomes by at least a third, he said.

The number of lambs killed in the North Island has jumped 21 per cent on last year, according to Agrifax.

Because of that, less money was likely to filter through the farming community this year, he said.

"So the economy's going to feel this, right through to the cities."

Silver Fern Farms chief executive Keith Cooper said the average weight for lambs bought by the meat processor was slightly down, but nowhere near weights seen during droughts.

Meanwhile, Canterbury crop farmers were making hay while the sun was out.

Ashburton grain and seed farmer Ian Mackenzie said apart from yesterday's rain it had been "glorious".

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"If you don't like dry conditions you shouldn't farm in Canterbury, regardless of what farming you're doing."

Water in the aquifers and from drains was still flowing well due to winter's late end and the sunny days were perfect for harvesting, he said.

Exceptionally hot weather just after Christmas had slowed grain growth slightly, and he believed there was likely to be less up for sale than most people expected, driving the price up.

Canterbury was "well served" by irrigation which had been developed over the decades, he said. "We're not immune from drought, but the effect of drought is far less debilitating than it is in other places like the Hawkes Bay."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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