4 Mar 2020

Where the big dry really hurts

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 4 March 2020
Northland drought, Kaikohe area

Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

It was shaping up to be Bill Cashmore's best year on the farm with record prices for beef and lamb, but the worst drought he's ever known has put paid to that.

The deputy mayor of Auckland and his son Robert who runs the 1220-hectare sheep and beef farm in Clevedon, about an hour south east of Auckland's CBD, will have to make some drastic decisions if no rain comes in the next couple of weeks.

It's so dry old native trees growing next to a stream are dying and the brown summer grass has turned grey. Cashmore describes it as 'fried".

The farm borders on the Hunua Ranges and from its highest point, at 600m, Cashmore looks down the dry valleys to the Hauraki Gulf.

In a normal season 2000 lambs would be grazing up here but right now there are none.

Shortly, the Cashmores will have to make "a fairly large decision"  on destocking. "We might have to drop 1000 ewes and a 100 cows."  He says the poorer stock will go first, the ones with the "sad eye look."

These are capital stock - breeding stock built up over generations - and sending them to the meatworks will be "heart breaking."

Cashmore is hoping that the extremely dry summer is not " the new normal."  He says the current drought is the most intense he has experienced in 40 years.  "It is not the longest, well not yet, but it is sharper because of the intense westerly winds.

"If it is [the new normal] we will find a way through it. We will keep farming, but farming animals? Maybe not.

"We'll start looking pretty hard next spring and planting hardy crops that will stand the Auckland climate. Well need to do some research and analysis."

Cashmore says he will consult his scientific advisor "Mr Google."

Further north, at Kaitaia, Ian Walker has begun to destock his dairy farm. "It has taken me eight weeks to get 50 cows off the farm."  

Walker says he would normally "just book them in at the meatworks and away they go" but the area has been hit by the "double whammy" of the drought and corona virus. 

"The demand for space at the meatworks has been very, very high and on top of that the corona virus has restricted the selling of the meat and from what I am told the distribution of the meat has slowed so if they can't sell  it they don't want to kill it."

Walker says the farm is running 25 percent below budget and he is having to buy in trucks palm kernel to feed his cows, something he has never done before. "It is $500 a tonne...cows eat 18 kilograms a day and there is 300 of them. But I am not giving them the full amount, I can't afford it."

Walker also owns a stationery store in Kaitaia but says the drought is also impacting that business.  "Kaitaia is a rural service town and retail depends on the farming community. We have had our worst January ever," he says.