Drought zone a step closer

By Annette Lambly, Mike Dinsdale

Northland rural leaders could ask the Government to declare the region an official drought zone for the third time in four summers.

A Northland Rural Support Trust meeting on Tuesday will assess whether the majority of the region (north of the Harbour Bridge) is affected enough for drought action.

Trust co-ordinator Julie Jonker said the group was assessing the impact the dry spell was having on the majority of the Northland region to decide whether it was drought time.

An official drought was declared in Northland in January 2010 and again the next summer in December 2010.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) says soil moisture levels are so low the region is dry enough to be considered a drought zone again.

Figures from the Northland Regional Council show that, so far this year, 19.6mm of rain has fallen in Whangarei compared with the average of 220mm; In Dargaville 22.6mm has fallen compared with the 163mm average; 34mm in Kaikohe (222mm); 46mm in Kerikeri (121mm), and 16mm in Kaitaia (174mm).

Ms Jonker said there were still "patchy areas" which weren't as badly off as others in the region, but farms in Dargaville, Warkworth and the Far North were already suffering from severe soil moisture deficit.

Strong winds were further decreasing soil moisture levels with no rain predicted until the end of February.

Niwa's assessment of the conditions, along with information from the trust, would combine to help the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, decide whether to declare a drought event. It is likely he would visit the region before making the final decision.

This would bring support in the form of grants and assistance packages for farmers.

Agriculture facilitators are the first of frontline assistance - a free service which helps farmers to arrange emergency benefits, counselling if needed, even working with banks, accountants and farm advisers during the difficult period.

Those herds who were autumn calving in one month's time will likely be the hardest hit as food supplies dwindle prior to calving.

And it isn't just feed - water supplies such as dams are drying up, adding to farmers' woes.

Even urban dwellers could be affected by the continued dry weather, while a total fire ban has been declared across the region because of the tinder-dry conditions.

Ms Jonker said farmers "were amazingly adaptive" and had learned to prepare for the dry conditions with many growing more maize and hay as extra feed, but acknowledged there was a point when adverse conditions went well beyond an individual farmer's control.

Some had already gone on to once-a-day, but this could cause risk of high somatic counts and would need careful monitoring.

Key messages from Dairy NZ are to dry off first-year calvers, find off-farm grazing, where possible monitor cows' body score - cows at BCS 3 are a welfare risk and need proactive management - and ensure young stock are achieving target weights and, if not, priority-feed stragglers.

- Northern Advocate

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