30 Dec 2015

South Island farmers brace for big dry

8:57 am on 30 December 2015

Farmers in Marlborough and North Canterbury are used to long, hot summers, but they say they are bracing for a record-breaking dry spell.

Dry paddocks near Ranfurly and Kyeburn in Maniototo.

Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

The current dry conditions have come a month earlier than usual.

In fact both regions are still suffering from a drought that started last summer.

The Marlborough District Council says unless there is a substantial amount of rain soon, it will experience its driest summer since records began in the 1930s.

Awatere Valley sheep and cattle farmer Greg Harris said he would have to halve his stock numbers if conditions did not change soon.

"There certainly can be a cumulative effect, and that's what we're trying to avoid as an industry," Mr Harris said. "We're trying to be responsible so we don't over-graze the pastures, so we don't over-stress the animals. So the pastures and animals can recover.

"The reality is some of these things do affect the health of your pastures and your animals," he said.

Further south, the Federated Farmers' North Canterbury provincial president, Frank Brenmuhl, said the prolonged drought had made it harder to prepare for this summer.

"By and large the dry is starting to bite," he said.

"It's showing up, for example, in the fact that most people where they've had irrigation is they've started irrigating earlier this time than they did last year. The concerning factor is that the water levels are really just the same as they were at the end of last season because we've had very little recharge over the winter.

"We've heard tales of people putting wells further down a well in order to access water at a deeper level."

The low water levels mean grass was not growing as well and supplementary feed was expensive.

"For a lot of farmers it's a case of making sure that you don't have more mouths on your property that need feeding so you don't have to buy in a whole lot of extra stuff," he said. "The question about inputs versus outputs is always there. The less stock you've got on, the less you have to buy."

Mr Brenmuhl said the strain on budgets had left some farmers already relying on grocery grants.

In August, the Government said because of the ongoing dry conditions, the medium-scale adverse event it declared at the start of the year, would continue until at least February.

Rural Support Trust Top of the South co-ordinator, Ian Blair, said the organisation was providing support and guidance to farmers finding it hard.

"There's nothing like owing money or being in debt to create stress for people," he said. "The important thing [for them] is not to try and handle it on their own. Talk to people about it. Socialise. Meet with people. Talk through the issues.

"They'll find in actual fact the problem they're having, will be exactly the same as someone down the road."

Mr Blair said the trust was arranging social events and he was giving one-on-one advice.

"One of the great attributes of farming is they live in hope," he said. "Of better prices, they live in hope that it's going to rain tomorrow."

"The problem with hope is they will put off critical decisions that need to be made."

Mr Blair said those decisions often required farmers to put financial considerations to one side for the sake of their own well-being.

As the effects of this drought flow into next year's season, Mr Blair said it could start to affect mating and even re-planting.

But right or wrong, Mr Brenmuhl in North Canterbury has this to say.

"We're hoping that we're going to get some rain over summer and if we don't get it over summer, we're hoping like hell we'll get it in autumn.

"That's all you do, you just look after the things you can control, you deal with the things you can control and you just hope that things improve."

With no significant rainfall on the horizon, perhaps hope is the answer.

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