Jamie Gray is a business reporter for the NZ Herald

Smart farming eases the big dry

Irrigation and early stock reduction have curbed the El Nino impact and feed costs on many farms.
Past droughts have taught farmers how to cope better with extended dry periods. Photo / NZME
Past droughts have taught farmers how to cope better with extended dry periods. Photo / NZME

El Nino is technically past its peak, but the true impact of the weather pattern looks likely to play out over the next few months.

For many farmers - particularly in the South Island - El Nino looks likely to prolong what has already been in drought for the better part of a year.

The signs are not good and for eastern parts of the South Island El Nino will mean more of the same over the next few months.

While some parts of the country got a dousing over the weekend, weather experts say the current El Nino could rank among the strongest events recorded, along with 1972/73, 1982/83 and 1997/98.

"The event is past its peak in the tropics but the key thing is that we have not seen the worst of the impact yet," MetService meteorologist Georgina Griffiths said.


"From a New Zealand point of view, the impact is just starting," she said. "It's looking very much like 1997/98 because of the heat and the northwesterlies."

New Zealand has already had three heatwaves in the past three weeks, which does not bode well. "Any moisture that the soil did have has been pretty much sucked out," Griffiths said.

Conditions are already dry in the north and eastern parts of the country.

Heatwaves will be a factor, just as they were were in 1997/8.

"It's not a great set-up to enter an El Nino summer," Griffiths said.

Not all regions will be guaranteed a drought and there will always be one or two regions that will get "useful rain" in the short term.

"Overall, if you were farming in the north and east - those already dry regions - the chances are that they will have a dry run for the next three or four months," she said.

For many, El Nino will simply mean an extension to what have already been dry conditions since early 2015.

In February, the Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy classified the drought affecting the east coast of the South Island as "a medium-scale adverse event".

Regions included in the medium-scale classification are Marlborough, Canterbury and parts of Otago.

In August, this classification was extended to February 2016. The need to extend the classification beyond next month is being considered, a spokesman for MPI said.

MPI said El Nino is likely to have a negative impact on regions responsible for around 35 per cent of New Zealand's dairy production. However, the El Nino impact on remaining dairy production regions is likely to be neutral or positive. Dairy NZ's senior developer for productivity, Kim Mashlan, said if similar El Nino years are anything to go by, then many farms could grow two to three tonnes less feed per hectare than normal.

"Some areas like Northland, Bay of Plenty and parts of Waikato and Canterbury show lower than average pasture growth rates from January through to April, compared to an average year," Mashlan said.

DairyNZ is advising farmers to prepare for the worst.

Milk production nationwide is already well below last year, after a heavier than normal cow cull.

If dry summer conditions put pressure on pasture growth, then milk production will drop further.

"Currently, I'd say we are tracking for a 6 per cent drop in milk production this season, but if El Nino conditions affect us badly this summer, it could be 10 per cent or more down in some regions," DairyNZ economist Matthew Newman said.

Sarah Barr, co-ordinator for the South Island drought committee, which supports farmers and gathers information for the ministry, said conditions had remained dry for much of the island since February.


El Nino would mean more of the same for many farmers, but with north Canterbury copping the worst of it. "North Canterbury very much remains in the eye of the tiger," Barr said. "We have had a significant reduction of stock numbers on farms.

"Some parts of Canterbury don't look quite so bad because in south and mid-Canterbury there is extensive irrigation," she said.

"But pockets of mid-Canterbury don't have it or have been put on restriction."

However, Barr concurred with a report from the NZ Institute of Economic Research in saying farmers, with better technology and information, were generally coping better than they had done in previous events.

"Weather forecasting is far better than it was in 1997/98 and farmers have better access to information - through events such as technical field days," she said.

Andrew Curtis, chief executive, Irrigation NZ.
Andrew Curtis, chief executive, Irrigation NZ.


Farmers did take action much earlier than they would have in the past by reducing stock numbers. For many, it was a matter of once bitten twice shy.

Around this time last year, many were taking in supplementary feed and using off-farm grazing, the costs coming to hundreds of thousands of dollars a farm. This time around, farmers have tended to reduce their stock numbers in advance to circumvent the feed problem.

"Coming into the second season, they do not have the same appetite for supplementary feed and off-farm grazing," she said.

Barr, who farms near Waimate, said on an emotional level farmers were coping with the adverse conditions.

"On the whole, I am highly impressed with how farmers are holding up," she said. "Obviously they are finding it much tougher and the second season does create a whole new set of issues."

Irrigation is obviously a huge boon for parts of the South Island - Canterbury in particular - but it is still not fail-safe.

"It certainly minimises the risks of exposure to these events but it remains an enormous investment for a farm business to undertake," she said.

"If you are on an irrigation scheme that does not have 100 per cent reliability, and you have invested in all that infrastructure, and if there is a 25 per cent reduction, then the cost of that investment increases."


Kirdan Lees, principal economist at NZIER, said the impact of El Nino will be felt in the national accounts, but will not be enough to tip the economy into recession. He says El Nino has the potential to shave 0.2 of a percentage point off GDP growth in calendar 2016.

"Some areas have had a reasonable amount of rain - except Canterbury - where it has been dry.

"However, farmers have cut back on stock levels in preparation," he said.

In dairy, cow culling is about 15 to 20 per cent higher than the norm in Canterbury.

Lees said the big difference between now and the last El Nino event was irrigation - particularly in Canterbury. For many, irrigation, or the prospect of irrigation, will be key.

For 100 or so farmers in drought-prone North Canterbury, this month's High Court decision allowing them to proceed with plans for the Hurunui Water Project could not have come soon enough.

"Now that we have the consents, we will be seeking the funding to complete the project evaluation work and get to a stage where we an offer farmers water user agreements," the projects chief executive, Alex Adams, said. HWP is seeking short-term funding of $2 million.

"All things going well, we could see a small-scale irrigation start in the summer of 2018/19 - but more likely a year after that," he said.

Adams said the region suffers from particularly debilitating droughts, and some farmers in the area had spent around $250,000 last summer just to keep their capital stock alive.

The scheme is consented to irrigate 58,500ha. "There is a lot of pressure on now to get this scheme sorted and in operation," he said.

Andrew Curtis, chief executive of Irrigation New Zealand, said the past year or so of dry weather had brought irrigation into sharper focus.

"What the year is showing is the need for a reliable water supply for irrigation," he said.

Canterbury's aquifers did not re-charge well this year because there was limited winter rainfall. But the alpine rivers were flowing very well, with regular freshes down the mighty Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers.


"It highlights for us the need to look at how we utilise the alpine systems, because the alpine systems in years like this do flow very well," Curtis said.

The outlook

• El Nino is an underlying weather pattern known for cooler temperatures.
• Likely to result in more rain in the west, drier conditions in the north and east.
• Stronger winds on the west coast and in Canterbury.
• Dry conditions have been in these parts of the South Island for many months.
• Likely to extend, prolong, or worsen the existing drought in the eastern South Island.

- NZME.

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