Teuila Fuatai

Teuila Fuatai is a reporter for the NZ Herald

Inside story: Farm systems 'have to adapt'


New Zealand farmers have been issued with an ultimatum.

Drought conditions, currently wreaking havoc across much of the North Island, will become more common, weather experts predict.

The Government, which estimates losses associated with the dry weather could tally $1 billion, says farming systems must adapt.

Farmers cannot expect ongoing government support in the face of continuous droughts, Acting Prime Minister Bill English warned last week.

Suggestions of drought-resistant grass and better water management systems have been tossed up as possible sustainability initiatives, rather than unsustainable state handouts in the form of financial drought relief assistance.

New Zealand's national farming body says the present drought - the worst on record in the North Island - has been a harsh learning curve for many farmers.

"We have to adapt - there is no doubt about it," Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills said. The agriculture, food and forestry sectors generate about 12 per cent of gross domestic profit, government figures show.

New Zealand is also the number one dairy and sheep meat exporter in the world.

Mr Wills said while much of the lower South Island had been sheltered from the harsh weather, sheep and beef farmers across the country were paying the price for the drought.

Average moisture levels in the North Island have dropped to an all-time low, with devastating economic and social consequences.

Predictions from Beef + Lamb New Zealand suggest a 54 per cent drop in farm profit before tax for the current season.

"[But] what that means is that beef and lamb farmers in the south of the South Island have had a good season," Mr Wills said. Farmers in the worst-affected areas, such as Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and Taihape, will experience a much more dramatic drop in profits.

And to cope with reduced feed and parched pastures, animals are being killed off early - flooding slaughterhouses with work as farmers look to cull stock. The "cull cow kill" - beasts unlikely to make it to the spring calving season due to age or poor health - is currently 66 per cent higher than at this time last year, Mr Wills said.

"Rather than getting rid of 20 or 30 cows which might be normal, they're [farmers] getting rid of 40 or 50 just to help ease the difficulty of coping with this long dry spell."

As a result, excess supply in the beef and lamb markets is driving prices down.

Figures from Beef + Lamb show the average lamb price of $85 per head is down 25 per cent from last season's near record $113.60 price. However, beef prices have remained relatively stable due to high demand in the US, parts of which are suffering from a three-year drought, the industry group says.

Mr Wills said each day without rain was devastating for farmers. Contingency plans to move straw via ship and train from the South Island to stricken farms in the north have been discussed.

Without substantial rain in the next four months, pasture growth would be insufficient to provide enough feed for animals through winter, Mr Wills warned. "This will be tough on rural communities, this will be tough on our big cities, and this will be tough on the entire New Zealand economy."

Farmers battle every day during drought conditions to get feed and water to their stock.

"It is a tough, tough time, particularly when farmers are pretty close to their animals."

The entire North Island has been declared a drought zone. Drought-declared areas have access to financial assistance and funding for support groups from the Government.

Reports of high rates of depression and suicide in rural areas have been a major concern for New Zealand's farming community. The suicide rate for people living in rural areas is 16 per 100,000 people, compared to 11.2 per 100,000 people living in urban areas, according to Statistics NZ.

Mr Wills said 99 per cent of the support which kicked in when a drought was declared was emotional. And some farmers who were less prepared would need more help than others. "There will be some people that haven't made decisions in a timely manner who will get caught.

"Many of them are already finding things pretty tough, particularly in the sheep and cattle industry where prices are well down on where they were last year."

While the dry conditions are the worst on record for North Island farmers, devastating droughts are likely to become even more commonplace as global warming starts to bite.

Climate change expert Dr Jim Salinger said weather models indicated droughts would occur every five years by late-century, though they would be less severe than the present drought.

Droughts like that in 2007/08, when soil moisture levels dropped to lows generally experienced once a decade, were likely to double in frequency, he warns.

Climate models suggested a trend to drier summers and autumns thanks to the effects of global warming, Dr Salinger said. But the winter and spring seasons would become progressively "wetter" - adding new challenges for the agricultural sector.

Weather patterns in Australia and the greater Pacific region also indicated a "drying out" over summer, he said.

"For an eight-day period in January there were temperatures of 48C ... over Australia. Then there was the record high mean temperature for the day for the continent, which was 39C."

It had also been the hottest Australian summer on record - sparking devastating bush fires in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales - but with record deluges of rain in Queensland, Dr Salinger said.

Both Dr Salinger and Mr Wills agreed that better farming systems suitable to wetter winters and drier summers were needed to counter predictions of more extreme weather patterns.

The economic impact of the present drought would last for years, Mr Wills said - a cost which must be minimised.

More water storage, more trees, better pasture management and better mixtures of stock will all be up for discussion in the farming community in the drought's aftermath.

- ROTORUA DAILY POST

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