Long-awaited rain forecast for North

By Rebecca Quilliam, Hannah Norton, Mike Barrington -

Long-awaited rain is forecast for the drought-hit Northland region.

Patchy showers are expected on Friday, with another sprinkle in some northern areas forecast on Saturday, a good fall throughout the region on Sunday, and more light rain in some parts on Monday.

The rain is predicted in the MetService forecast for the next 10 days.

And beef farmer Geff Cookson, of Kawakawa, is hoping the weather forecasters got it right. He has some ropey old kikuyu which a bit of rain will rejuvenate and enable him to keep 1400 bulls on his property and, hopefully, see his way through this grim dry spell.

What Mr Cookson fears is the drought continuing into May or June, although the North has an advantage in that, with nitrogen, grass will grow in those months which the rest of country calls winter.

Mr Cookson was interested in a Beef + Lamb New Zealand mid-season update estimating Northland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty farmers' profit before tax for the 2012-13 season would fall 50 per cent compared to last season, to an average of $44,300.

B+L NZ says the forecast average lamb price of $85 per head is down 25 per cent from last season's $113.60, which was the second highest on record.

Nationwide, farm profit before tax for the current season is expected to fall 54 per cent, to an average of $73,000.

Mr Cookson said while cow prices had fallen from 440c to 380c a kilogram at the meat works he had ``seen it worse'' and was not expecting his bottom line to tumble as far as B+L NZ was predicting.

Northland Rural Support Trust official Julie Jonker said farmers without supply contracts had only slim hopes of obtaining palm kernel supplementary feed before April as all supplies were committed.

Federated Farmers was investigating the availability of hay and grain in the South Island where there had been a bumper crop.

Some Northland farmers had made late hay. Others had harvested immature maize or cut outside rows to save what they could before the sun dried all nutrition from their plants.

Ms Jonker said the immature maize with low-protein kernels would make low-value silage, but it would be "better than nothing''.

B+L NZ Northland official Thomas Creswell said animal welfare - the provision of water, food and shelter for stock - was the main issue for farmers dealing with drought.

Water warning in Far North:

Meanwhile, a total hose and water sprinkler ban has also been imposed on properties drawing from the Kaitaia and Rawene water supply schemes as the drought continues to bite.

Water restrictions have been expanded in the Far North as flows continue to fall in the rivers and streams from where public water supplies are drawn.

Far North District Council infrastructure and assets general manager David Penny said a total ban on the use of hoses and sprinkler systems is now in force for all properties within the Kaitaia and Rawene water supply schemes.

The two water supply schemes join the hosing ban introduced for Opononi and Omapere area last week.

"River flow graphs are continuing to fall steadily and we cannot rule out the possibility restrictions may be required in other areas as well unless the Far North gets some steady rain over the next few weeks,'' Mr Penny said.

He said although the situation was not yet as severe as during 2010 drought, the outlook was not good. "It is extremely important that our urban communities continue to conserve water voluntarily to avoid the need for further compulsory restrictions. For those already in restricted areas - at Kaitaia, Rawene and Opononi/Omapere - the message is please don't waste water and put away the hoses and sprinklers until further notice,'' he said.

"There are many ways in which to cut household water use by simply using a little commonsense such as not leaving taps running while cleaning teeth or preparing vegetables, taking showers rather than baths and only washing the dishes and clothes when you have a full load.''

Shiploads of South Island straw:

Shiploads of straw from the South Island could be transported to desperate North Island farmers if the dry weather continues, Federated Farmers says.

The organisation is looking into the feasibility of bringing the feed by ships and trains to drought-stricken regions.

Droughts have been declared in Northland, south Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Hawkes Bay. Wairarapa, Manawatu, Rangitikei and the top of the South Island could also be declared as drought regions by the end of the week.

Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills said the big worry was if the dry weather continued for the next four to six weeks.

"Because if we don't (get rain) we won't get enough growth into the winter and then we'll have a very serious situation with the North Island not having enough feed to feed its stock."

The group was crunching the numbers into getting feed to the North Island from the mainland, Mr Wills said.

One ship could carry 10,000 large bales of straw, he said.

"(But) people are talking about some rain later this week and if it's useful rain then we may not need these ships or the train, but it's just a case of longterm planning and starting to put stuff into place if we need to.

"What we don't want is everybody panicking in six weeks if we don't have any feed."

Winemakers basking in summer sun:

While farmers appeal to the heavens to relieve the drought, Northland winemakers are more than happy with the prolonged sunshine.

"As much as it is bad for farmers, and I sympathise with them - it's great for us,'' said Mario Vuletich, owner of Longview Estate winery in Otaika.

While the hot weather has produced smaller fruit "it's more concentrated - making for a delightful wine'', he said.

"Also, none of the fruit has split because there's been no rain.

"All the factors have aligned.

"It's a bit of a dream for any winemaker.''

Having said that, not all winemakers could benefit from such a dry summer, he said.

"Our vines are old - with roots deep in the ground, so they can survive the dry season. If we had a vineyard of young vines it'd be a different story.''

Last year the Longview Estate had a few frosts which resulted in a 38 per cent reduction in crop size.

"But you take the good with the bad - the quality is going to be there.

"This is my fourth driest vintage in 40 years of wine-making, which is marvellous,'' he said.

He cultivates seven varieties of grapes, with some ripening in February, some in March and some in April.

The White Diamond grapes have very recently been harvested, but because of the good weather Mr Vuletich is leaving the reds on the vines for a bit longer.

Monty Knight, the general manager of Okahu Estate near Ahipara, said the vineyard hadn't had any significant rain since Christmas Day.

He believes it to be drier than the 2010 drought.

"And 2010 was a spectacular vintage,'' he said, pointing out that there was some rain in the January of the drought, reducing the stress on crops. "We've picked some fruit already and it's exceptionally good," he said.

Check out the impact of the drought with these two photos supplied by Nasa, the first taken on March 5, 2012, and the second taken on March 10, 2013:

- Additional reporting by APNZ

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