After a poor spring and a continuing hot, dry summer, the Government is being asked to formally declare the Tararua district a drought zone.
With growing concerns about the stress levels of farmers and animal welfare, representatives from a wide range of organisations from within Tararua, including Federated Farmers, the Tararua District Council, Tararua Rural Support Trust and representatives from the dairy and sheep and beef industries, met in Dannevirke on Monday to discuss the crisis on farms throughout the district.
The dry conditions in the district had worsened considerably in the past few weeks with hot days and minimal rain, the meeting was told.
Forecasts show no rain in sight during the next week. Once rain comes, there will be only eight weeks' possible grass growth to provide feed through the winter and this will severely restrict farmers' ability to build up pasture covers to get stock through the winter. Coupled with the drought, East Coast sheep and beef farmers were looking at profits halving as the full impact of current lamb prices kicked in, coupled with the drought, B+LNZ Chairman and Eastern North Island director Mike Petersen has said.
"Beef + Lamb New Zealand's mid-season update estimates East Coast farmers' profit before tax for the 2012-13 season will fall 54 per cent, compared to last season, to an average of $72,400," he said.
"There's no doubt this is a tough season, with dry conditions also taking a toll. As well as lower prime livestock returns, store stock prices are down, as higher-than-usual numbers head for the stockyards. It's one downside to this season's high lambing percentage. There are simply more lambs around, which affects the supply-demand equation."
Tararua Mayor Roly Ellis said the drought's impact would be felt on local towns' high streets and agricultural-service industries.
"We're all going to be affected in a big way," he said. "Unfortunately, this drought has come so soon after the 2007/2008 drought, which a lot of farmers are still recovering from as they try to build capital stock numbers. Out towards the coast, the land is very, very dry and farmers are having to sell small lambs at around 13kg and 14kg."
Mr Ellis said farmers were finding it difficult to get rid of store stock.
"The meat companies are being as hard as hell on farmers. They paid far too much for stock last year and now they're trying to claw that back."
Those attending Monday's drought meeting in Dannevirke were told the district's soil-moisture levels had dropped dramatically.
"They are now 135mm below where they would be normally and it would need more than 50mm of rain to get the levels up to allow good pasture growth, but there's now less time for regrowth to occur before the weather becomes colder," Peter Wimsett, manager strategy and district development for the Tararua District Council, said.
"With an expected impact of between 15 and 30 per cent on dairy farmers' income, this is a worry for us all. For sheep farmers especially, they've got the worry of livestock welfare and reduced prices."
With the top half of the North Island declared a drought zone and remaining North Island districts likely to ask the Government to do the same for them, farmers did not have the usual options of sending stock out for grazing or selling stock easily. Few buyers were around and there was a long wait to get stock killed, East Coast rural support co-ordinator Bill Wallace said.
As well, there was a shortage of supplementary feed and, in some cases, a shortage of water for stock.
"The Rural Support Trust and other organisations servicing the rural districts have also noticed an increase in stress levels within the rural communities," Mr Wallace said.
Farmers are being advised to approach the Rural Support Trust, their bank, Work & Income or Tararua Family Services if facing problems.
They are also being advised to follow the dry-weather advice of industry organisations.
Meanwhile, agribusiness banking specialist Rabobank is reassuring clients impacted by drought conditions that it will work to support them through the difficulties.
George Murdoch, Rabobank's East Coast regional manager, said the bank would work alongside its farming clients affected by the severe dry conditions to mitigate the impacts of the drought and ensure farmers were well positioned to rebuild production and their financial position when seasonal conditions improved.
Mr Murdoch said Rabobank took a long-term view and understood that climatic extremes were part of the business of farming.
"Stock prices are falling rapidly and supplementary feed costs have risen sharply in recent weeks and, while the financial impact of the drought will be felt for some years to come, the immediate concern is for farmer well-being," he said.