— Lack of water is starting to turn parts of the region into dry dustbowls, the likes of which have not been seen in recent years - especially in Central Otago. Parts of the region are on track for their driest January on record and the fire risk is soaring with fires reported almost daily since the start of the year.
"It's one of the drier years we've had in a long time," Dunedin hydrologist Dave Stewart says. "It is out of the ordinary for the past five years or so, but not unheard of in the past."
The difference from previous dry years in 1999 and 2004 is the early start, with the region experiencing levels of dryness usually not seen until February or early March.
With access to irrigation water becoming severely restricted or stopped altogether, farmers are concerned for winter crops and are sending livestock to meat works early.
The Otago Regional Council is taking the unusual step of issuing water shortage directions to ensure enough water remain in rivers to support their ecology.
Middlemarch farmer Lynnor Templeton said the real problems began when irrigation stopped. "That's the real killer."
— Last time Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy visited Mid-Canterbury farmer Chris Allen, they stood in a paddock discussing too much rain. This time the topic was not enough rain. But Guy held back from officially declaring a drought as he met with Federated Farmers leaders, farmers and Rural Support Trust representatives from Mid and South Canterbury to see how dry the district had become first-hand.
Farmers told him they're used to dry summers, but this year the "big dry" has hit much earlier than usual and irrigation schemes are struggling. Lake Opuha in South Canterbury has only enough water to support irrigation for another month; other schemes are operating on 50 per cent restrictions.
And as the district dries out, the fire risk increases. Volunteer firefighters have been kept busy fighting rural fires - many blamed on people lighting fires which have escaped from rubbish pits and spread quickly.
The worst so far, on an Ashburton Forks farm, destroyed almost 100ha and more than 5km of fencing, keeping firefighters on the scene for four days. From tonight, all of Canterbury will be under total fire ban.
Dust billows as sheep are driven down a fenceline near Beaumont. Parts of Central Otago are on track for their driest January on record. Photo / Stephen Jaquiery
— A midweek downpour was welcome enough for farmers, but the dry conditions mean the district is at a "tipping point", says Carterton mayor John Booth, who runs 200ha of dairy pasture and crops at Taratahi. Booth says the downpour will not make a difference on farms.
"We're not at the panic point yet, but we are at a crucial stage. It's verging on becoming a serious problem."
He says most farmers are "pretty savvy" about what a drought means, and things could go both ways.
"If this carries on, with heat in the high 20s, low 30s, we could have a serious problem on our hands."
He has noted some de-stocking of farms, and sales have not been high, meaning farmers are being cautious about what they buy, with minimal surplus feed.
He recalls very dry summers in the 1960s and 70s, but says it seems to be getting drier later in the year.
"When the rains come in autumn, they come later than they used to. The ground gets drier, and you can't generate the food."
Restrictions on taking water for irrigation are now in effect for all but three of Wairarapa's rivers, due to very low flows.
Wairarapa endured an official drought in 2012-13, when the entire North Island was declared a drought zone.
"Most guys just get on with it," Booth says. "If you don't understand what happens at this time of year ... "
— There's no panic - yet - in Hawkes Bay where farming is geared towards long dry summers. Rain in early-December helped to stave-off drought and farmers learned much from the 2013 drought, says Rural Support Trust regional director Dick Kingston.
While the region got a break on Wednesday with heavy rain and hail, Hawkes Bay Federated Farmers president Will Foley says the lack of rain is expected. "Most farmers are accepting it as normal for this time of year - even if we didn't get any rain until the end of February it would be okay."
For grape growers, the hot dry conditions are optimal, says Hawkes Bay Winegrowers Association spokesman James Medina. "At the moment it's not a problem ... ideally we are going to want dry conditions through vintage when we pick the grapes; we will start doing that at the end of February to early March."
But the regional council warns that soil moisture levels are low, hillsides are browning off and aquifer levels are dropping. Water restrictions are in force in much of the Bay and a total fire ban will be imposed in central Hawkes Bay on Monday.
— After last summer's "diabolical" long dry, spring was kind to northern farmers with plenty of rain in most areas to December. Beef farmer Kim Biddles, who farms 450ha on the west coast south of Te Kopuru, says it's been a "better than normal" summer so far and even if dry conditions take hold the farm has enough cover to see stock through winter.
Kaipara dairy farmer Colin Hadlow is also optimistic after 90mm of rain in mid-December left him with "more grass than we know what to do with". He says the farm has good reserves of supplementary feeds.
But Hadlow believes a long drought could tip dairy farmers facing a low projected milksolids payout into the red. "A lot of guys will be working for nothing this year." There will be no spare money as dairy farmers tighten their belts to battle their way through the difficult spell.
Drier conditions since Christmas are beginning to bite more broadly with water restrictions and fire bans.
Firefighters spent days dousing a blaze at Pouto, south of Dargaville, and battled to save a pine plantation near Awarua, south of Kaikohe, from a suspicious blaze.
Permits are required for fires other than barbecues or hangi in the Far North and the Northern Rural Fire Authority is warning it will bill those who start fires for the cost of helicopter callouts. Water restrictions are in place in Rawene, Opononi and Omapere in South Hokianga, where water supplies depend on drought-sensitive streams.