Matthew Theunissen is a business reporter

Rain brings relief to Canterbury farmers

Rain has brought relief to drought-stricken South Island farmers. Photo / file
Rain has brought relief to drought-stricken South Island farmers. Photo / file

The hills and fields of the eastern South Island are green at last, signalling an end to the worst drought in the region's modern farming history.

But while stock are happily grazing back in their paddocks, the effects of the drought could be felt for years to come.

The drought, which was centred around North Canterbury and lower Marlborough, was declared by the government in February 2015 and officially lasted until December 31, 2016.

However, according to farmers the drought actually lasted far longer, with minimal rainfall from mid-2014 until this March.

North Canterbury Rural Support Trust chairman Doug Archbold said that when the March rain was followed by significant downpours in April, a collective sigh of relief went out across the region.

"There's been a huge lift in morale because it's been three years of real struggle. And nothing upsets farmers more than not being able to feed their stock," Archbold said.

"Day after day, farmers have had to buy food for their stock, send their stock away to grazing, sell stock or a combination of all three in some cases.

"It's the sheer drudgery and monotony of hand-feeding your stock day after day that really takes its toll."

On top of that, many of the affected farmers bore the brunt of the November Kaikoura earthquake, which caused widespread damage to infrastructure and stock losses.

"With a drought, it's so insidious and you don't know when it's going to stop. We had several false alarms where we've had quite a bit of rain in a month, but then it just stopped again and the most frustrating thing ... was when it would rain in parts of Canterbury but completely missed the places that needed it."

Taking into account the stress the drought had placed on the region's farmers and its duration, Archbold said the drought was the worst in the region's modern farming history.

"The drought in terms of moisture deficit is over but the financial implications are going to be around for several years," he said.

Dan Hodgen, who runs a sheep and beef farm near Hawarden, said it had been an extremely tough three years.

He'd been forced to buy tonnes of feed - "that costs six figures, plus" - and pay big money to transport some of his stock to graze elsewhere.

"It's been expensive, but that's what we had to do to get through it. The economic impacts are going to be carrying on for a long time. There will be a level of fatigue among farmers from three years of hard trot," Hodgen said.

"On the bright side we've had the rain and we can start getting over it whereas two months ago we were still in the guts of it. It's a big boost to morale seeing it like this; very green and lush, looking good."

Hodgen said he'd never been so severely tested in his long farming career as he was by the drought.

The Minister for Primary Industries (MPI) said that while the drought had ended, parts of the region were still experiencing dryness.

Those affected were still able to draw on the Hurunui Mayoral Fund for support, while the North Canterbury Drought Response Committee continued to provide technical and financial advice to help farmers get back on their feet.

The North Canterbury Rural Support Trust was also providing one-on-one help and other support for farmers in need.

"While there has been significant rain recently, the impact of several years of drought on pasture and stock numbers will take a lot longer to recover from," MPI said.

According to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), near-normal rainfall is the most likely outcome for the region between now and June.

Meanwhile, New Zealand dairy farmers are likely to get a higher payout from milk processors next season as global output remains subdued while demand picks up in China, underpinning prices, according to agri banking specialist Rabobank.

The lender forecast a farmgate milk price near $6.25 per kilogram of milk solids for the upcoming 2017/18 season, ahead of Fonterra Cooperative Group's $6/kgMS forecast for the current 2016/17 season.

- additional reporting BusinessDesk

- NZ Herald

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