Hawke's Bay's sheep population has dropped by 346,000 in a single year. Farming leaders say it's a potential glimpse of the future, as climate change turns the screws. Gianina Schwanecke reports.
Sheep culled, new shedding breeds, flexible feed management and more forestry - the future of Hawke's Bay farming is starting to work its way into the present as the effects of climate change become more apparent.
Hawke's Bay's sheep population has dropped 12 per cent in 2020- that's 346,000 fewer sheep - down to 2.5 million, according to recent data from Stats New Zealand.
Agricultural production statistics manager Ana Krpo
put this down to feed shortages during last year's drought but acknowledged it was part of a wider downward trend.
"While the fall in sheep numbers during this period is related to the 2020 drought, there has been a general decline for almost 40 years," she said.
Over the past 10 years alone, sheep numbers in NZ have fallen by 6.5 million or 20 per cent.
There are now five sheep per person and a total of 26 million sheep – a drop from the 1982 historic high of 22 per person and a total of 72 million sheep.
Federated Farmers Hawke's Bay president Jim Galloway agreed the region would continue to see sheep numbers decline in times of drought.
"The vast majority of the decrease is due to the drought," he said.
"This year we're down on stock numbers because there isn't grass on a lot of country.
"There's still some destocking."
Other factors were at play too, he said - the conversion of hill-country land into forestry and the low wool price.
Selling to get stock off-farm during drought could also result in lower returns - this was also complicated by stockyards closing last year due to Covid-19.
Lamb prices in Hawke's Bay sat around $90 per head in May last year, compared to about $120 per head this year.
While the total value of sheep-meat exports was sitting around $4 billion, for the year ended June 2020, the export value of wool has plunged dramatically in recent years.
In 2012, wool exports were worth $880 million, but that almost halved to just $460m in the last year.
Galloway said this had flow-on effects for other parts of the industry, with some shearing contractors voicing concerns to him about the future of their industry.
"It's costing them more to shear than they get in their returns."
Farmers are either shearing their own sheep to save money or moving to breeds of shedding sheep, which were "gaining in popularity", he said.
Reduced stock numbers could also impact meatworks processing plants.
"If there's less sheep, there's less sheep put through the works."
Niwa climate forecasts for the region show the risk of severe drought increasing from one in every 20 years to one in every five years by 2028.
While it was not unusual to get two quite bad droughts in a row, they did seem to be happening more often, which meant farmers needed to adapt, Galloway said.
"It comes down to farmers changing their systems to a more flexible stocking-rate system so they can change more easily to drought conditions.
"Everyone has to look at what they're doing and what suits them.
"Having something flexible is the biggest thing you can do."
He pointed to farmers reducing stocking rates and growing different crops as examples of changes being made on-farm.
Galloway encouraged those struggling with dry conditions and a lack of feed to reach out to support services.
"Keep talking to your neighbours and checking up."
'WE CAN EXPECT MORE'
It takes time for farms to restock, Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) North Island general manager Corina Jordan explains.
"With climate change bringing increased chance of drought, there could be further instances where destocking leads to decreases but at this stage we have no indication that farmers wouldn't restock as they have in the past."
However, if there was a significant sustained decrease, it would have a negative impact on the region's economy, she said.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council was recently presented with a report on water security, planning for the effects of climate change on the primary sector.
Conducted by ME Research, it indicated regional gross domestic product (GDP) could fall by up to $120m per year by 2060 if nothing was done to mitigate climate change.
HBRC group manager of integrated catchment management, Iain Maxwell, said farmers needed to integrate drought management into their long-term planning.
"We are working with farmers and rural stakeholders on a drought resiliency strategy to improve farmers' resiliency to climate change, and their overall welfare.
"We can expect more intense and frequent droughts in the future so we are encouraging farmers to adopt successful dry-land farming approaches."
He said the council was focused on supporting farmers to reduce water losses and minimise the environmental impacts of water use.
This included working with irrigators to provide advice and support on water efficiency, and now national freshwater reforms and our own regional policies are reinforcing the importance of this work.
HBRC was working with the Hawke's Bay Rural Advisory Group and Ministry for Primary Industries to develop a colour-coded early-warning system for signalling the risk of impending drought conditions in different parts of the region.
This would enable them to identify risks and communicate this with farmers to act early.
B+LNZ was also working on new technology to help farmers respond to drought.
"With drought becoming increasingly common, farmers should also make use of tools such as B+LNZ's feed planning service," Jordan said.
Increased water storage and more resilient stocking systems are also important, she said.
A free greenhouse gas calculator will also be launched soon, allowing farmers to calculate their emissions and sequestration to create a management plan, she said.
Jordan acknowledged sheep and beef farmers in Hawke's Bay were facing challenges, particularly relating to the environment.
"A key part of farm planning is looking at the capability of different soils and landscapes in relation to optimising their use, and interaction with the wider environment.
"It's this kind of understanding of the land and the environment that will help farmers thrive in future.
"There's already a high level of diversity across sheep and beef farms in Hawke's Bay, where farmers integrate other activities into their business, and we expect to see even more of these balanced landscapes."