Weather's sure changing here

By John Archer

Local farmers would be wise to ignore the half-truths in G R Scown's recent letter in the Chronicle denouncing predictions of climate change as a money-making scam.

Good farming requires contingency planning and astute farmers up here in the Waimarino and Taihape back-country districts are already preparing for more frequent dry seasons and much heavier rainfall in wet seasons.

Mr Scown was partially correct when he stated satellite data showed Antarctic ice was increasing. The ozone hole over Antarctica is allowing more heat to escape there, and so the surface area of shallow sea-ice has increased. Nevertheless, the total volume of ice and snow in Antarctica is decreasing. He also correctly states that the ice in the Arctic has varied over the centuries. It has indeed varied, slightly. But the bodies of woolly mammoths, thousands of years old, now being found as the ice melts would indicate that the climate there is now warmer than at any time since those beasts were deep-frozen.

Although there may have been little change in global temperature in the past 16 years, as Mr Scown states, this has been due to El Nino/La Nina fluctuations. There have been massive climate changes in this district in the past.

There were huge snowfalls up here in the mid-1890s, the worst being in 1897, when Waiouru farmer John Studholme lost 20,000 ewes, and had 40,000 more reduced to walking skeletons. A foot of snow fell in late May, and then a big storm 10 days later brought drifts 2m deep. A visitor to Studholme's farm the next summer found dozens of sheep skeletons "8 to 10 feet from the ground at Circular Bush".

However, in the 10 years I have been up this way, there have been only two or three small dumps of snow each winter, and the snow has melted quickly. Mr Scown may be correct about other parts of the world, but the weather is indeed changing in this area.

The local farmers have noticed the changing climate: There was a good turnout a couple of months ago in Lloyd's Bar at Bell's Junction when Mel Poulton of Beef+Lamb NZ organised a farm meeting called Farming the Wild Weather.

Niwa scientist Andrew Tait told the young farmers gathered what changes were expected in our weather in the next 40 years, while Wrightsons' adviser Tony Rhodes showed them how to modify their farm operations to keep farming profitably and Trevor Cook, a vet from Feilding, gave expert advice on controlling parasites.

Andrew showed that temperature readings from all around New Zealand had risen by 1C during the past century. Computer predictions were for another 1C rise within the next 40 years. This was expected to make the annual El Nino/La Nina fluctuations even more pronounced, so that in the Whanganui back-country there would be more excellent warm, wet seasons like the one we are experiencing, and also more drought years, from one year in 20 to one in seven and heavy rain events would dump 50 per cent more floodwater in the non-drought years.

Tony told the farmers that by making more hay and silage in the excellent years, they could get through the drought years. Planting trees on slip-prone slopes and relocating farm infrastructure to higher ground would make a farm more flood-proof.

The farmers paid close attention to Trevor, the parasitic worm expert. I had not realised how complex it was to maintain the health of farm animals. He explained that the warmer and wetter conditions should improve food supply and thus reduce internal parasites, but facial eczema was also likely to be more prevalent, so he advised farmers to get rams with genetic resistance to facial eczema.

Larvae of intestinal worms got into sheep via droplets of water on the grass the sheep ate, and in hot, dry years the paddocks should have fewer parasites. But heat and dust could lead to viral pneumonia in lambs, so there would need to be plenty of feed at lambing time.

However, the organisers' barbecued steaks were ready before the meeting could find out how the prices farmers received for their produce could be affected by the changing weather.

Up here on the Waimarino Plains, the good growing conditions this year produced bumper crops of winter vegetables. But customers in supermarkets didn't buy them all, so vegetable prices to the growers were low.

Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere, the lack of ice and snow in the Arctic has changed the path of the circumpolar winds over North America, Europe and Asia. This has led to mid-summer droughts in the American Midwest, the Ukraine and India, and a huge drop in the amount of grain being produced. Consequently the price of flour, bread and eggs is likely to rise dramatically in these places in the next nine months. Because many cattle in those countries are grain-fed, meat prices will drop, as breeding stock are killed off, and then rise steeply.

Because New Zealand is part of the global import-export trade network, my guess is that the prices of meat, bread and eggs are going to go up in our supermarkets, too. And if more of our Waimarino farmers switch from producing low-profit winter vegetables to high-profit beef cattle, then your vege prices next winter could be much higher.

Families living down in Wanganui, like those high-country farmers in Lloyd's Bar, might like to start making some long-term plans, too. Food costs next winter could be reduced if you put in a big vege garden this summer; with bulletproof winter crops of cabbages, broccoli, leeks and pumpkins. In the longer term, think about future flood events one-and-a-half times as big as recent floods. If you live close to the Whanganui, Whangaehu or Waitotara rivers, raising or relocating your house could save you a lot of future grief. That's one reason we shifted up to Ohakune.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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