Wairarapa feed crisis looms as drought deepens

By Don Farmer don.farmer@age.co.nz

Farmers are digging into winter feed stocks as Wairarapa inches closer to being officially declared a drought area.

Baleage and other supplementary feed earmarked for the colder months are being used to sustain stock.

This threatens to create a major feed shortage for winter, so farmers will have to try to secure extra supplies out-of-region at inflated prices.

Sheep farmers are trying to combat the big dry by destocking, which has helped to drive lamb prices down. Many dairy farmers are down to milking once a day or are considering drying off their herds.

Throughout Wairarapa the impact of the unending dry can be seen with fodder crops stunted and burned off before being of much use as feed.

Major rivers including the Mangatainoka and Wairarapa's largest, the Ruamahanga River, have greatly reduced flows.

The crisis is confirmed by the latest Niwa figures showing Wairarapa has received only a third of its normal rainfall and soil moisture levels have been classified as being in "extreme deficit".

The district has also been bathed in sunshine with recorded mean temperatures about 1C above average. Martinborough had its sunniest summer, as of March 1, on record.

Should Wairarapa follow Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, South Auckland and Hawke's Bay with an official drought declaration, some rural assistance programmes would kick in.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said yesterday a drought declaration would mean government money would be available to Rural Support Trusts, organisations that work with farmers at stressful times and support rural families.

Farming families facing "extreme hardship" may also qualify for Rural Assistance Payments.

Mr Guy said these would be available from Work and Income through the Ministry of Social Development and were the rural equivalent of the unemployment benefit.

The minister said he was "keeping a close eye" on several areas not yet declared as drought areas, including Wairarapa.

It was also important for farmers to realise some government support was available even without a drought declaration.

Standard hardship assistance was available from Work and Income, IRD could be contacted over flexibility with tax payments and banks were offering "flexible finance options".

The impact of prolonged dry weather in Wellington and of a potential drought declaration resonates well beyond just the farm gate.

As farm production drops and income from the land retreats the trickle down means less money is spent in town.

Spending on such things as machinery and equipment is curtailed and often cash-strapped farmers re-jig their budgets to cut back on topdressing and fertiliser costs, further shrinking the district's economy.

Federated Farmers said the drought declaration was needed to activate crucial services, but was not a blanket handout.

"While the drought declaration does open access to Rural Assistance Payments (RAPs), only cases of extreme hardship are eligible for these benefits," Waikato provincial president James Houghton said.

"In the widespread 2010/11 drought, less than 100 of several thousand affected farmers received these payments, nationally.

"Official drought declarations allow organisations such as the Rural Support Trust to expand on their farm advisory and counselling services, which are more vital than ever in these highly stressful times."

Federated Farmers has activated its 0800 DROUGHT (0800 376 844) feed line, matching those who need feed with those who have some to spare.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="3297" align="normal" enforce-sites="no" />

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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