Taieri still drying out weeks after flood
Rob Tipa ventured onto Otago's waterlogged Taieri Plains to see how the farmers were coping.
More than two weeks after the Taieri River hit its second highest flood levels on record, floodwaters have only just drained off some low-lying farms at the southern end of the Taieri Plains.
Parts of Mark McLennan's two dairy units near Berwick are actually below sea level, so when floodwaters breached flood banks protecting farmland between Berwick and Henley, McLennan and his neighbours were totally reliant on pumps to remove the water.
About 160ha - or two-thirds - of his 250ha Highbridge and Terrington dairy farms were under water up to the top of the fence posts for more than a week.
The Otago Regional Council brought in additional heavy duty pumps from around the country to assist their six fixed pumping stations to remove floodwaters from the lower Taieri reasonably quickly.
Ironically, it wasn't a particularly heavy rainfall on the Taieri Plains. The floodwaters arrived from upstream six days after the weather event that caused it.
"We only got 110mm of rainfall here, so our catchment wasn't too bad," McLennan said.
But some hill country in the Taieri catchment was swamped with more than 200mm of rain in such a short period of time, flood banks couldn't cope with the volume coming from upstream and spilled over on to farmland.
"There was just so much water in such a short time, it all poured over down here. Six days after the flood itself, water was still coming in. Then we finally got it turned and it was only on August 6 or 7 – two weeks after the storm - before the water drained off."
Initially McLennan and his staff thought they could move stock out of harm's way.
"We thought we could box all stock up for a week, but when the water kept coming in we had to draft all our late calvers up. Anything calving after August 25 we sent away for grazing, because we were running out of area," he said.
McLennan contacted Federated Farmers' Helpline and stock agents to see what grazing they had available and was able to find grazing at short notice for 270 late calvers near Waikaka in eastern Southland.
"We didn't know the farmer they were going to but we didn't have much choice and we are happy with the way it has turned out," he said.
With 90 per cent of one of his dairy farms under water, McLennan says they were lucky they had the flexibility to move cows from that farm to the neighbouring property with more dry ground.
"We were in danger of damaging what pasture we had left and we had cows calving. We're leaving the other farm as long as we can to dry out to stop it pugging up," he said.
Both farms were wintering 800 cows, so they still have 500 cows on-farm, most on two feed pads, some on a few paddocks of crop that is still above water and about 160 cows that had started milking were on pasture.
This week McLennan's contract milker was milking about 160 cows through one milking shed with another 20 or 30 more cows calving every day.
"If it doesn't dry out we'll have to look at options of sending cows away, which we're hoping not to do, but we have had some good offers from fellow farmers on the Taieri and from South Otago who will take cows from us to milk."
McLennan said drying over the next few weeks will be critical to see if pastures will survive and recover quickly without too much damage through the spring.
"The pastures are dirty, but they're not rotten or dead," he said. "We're hoping not to have to regrass. If we can get the last of the water off and put some urea on we hope nature will take its course."
Support from the local community had been great, he said, with transport companies, local contractors, farmers and staff from Fonterra pitching in to help.
"It is great to have all that support with teams of people to help you clean up," he said.
But his business still had to stand the extra costs of about $9000 a week to transport cows off farm, graze them and to pay for extra feed to replace crops and pasture destroyed by floodwaters.
Fortunately the region has had a very good growing season so there are plenty of options to buy in silage, balage and hay from contractors and farmers in the district.
Although he is totally focused on looking after stock and the farms' recovery, McLennan believes a review of the performance of the Lower Taieri Flood Protection and Drainage Scheme was necessary and should be more than "just a pat on the back" for its designers.
By and large, he said the scheme worked "but once the water is in here we've got to try and get it out".
In recent years, the Otago Regional Council's differential rating system for flood protection and drainage on the Taieri has drawn criticism from landowners in this corner of the Taieri Plain because they feel they are paying a disproportionate share of the rates.
McLennan believes the rating system has created a "them and us" situation, driving a wedge between landowners in a small, tight-knit community like the Taieri.
"I think it's a shallow argument that farmers on the southern end of the Taieri benefit the most from flood protection so therefore should pay the most," he said.
"You can't moan about where you live, but it's a bit frustrating when we've got to catch everyone else's water and the council has deemed we should be paying the lion's share of the rates.
"To try and apportion who benefits from flood protection, it just becomes ugly and unnecessary. Everybody needs flood protection and drainage in some form.
"Our forebears weren't that stupid when they set the scheme up. We all paid equally and we all got a benefit from it, but the next generation seem to think they know better and have fiddled with it.
"I don't like the 'them and us' system which makes it hard for people to work together when they are paying a different proportion of the costs."