Alert for farmers - summers dry means making early decisions

Hot on the heels of a very wet winter and spring, hot dry conditions have turned pastures in some parts of the lower North Island from swamp to concrete in just a few weeks.  NIWA’s New Zealand drought index shows that some parts of the region are in a ‘severe meteorological drought’.  

The Manawatu-Whanganui (Horizons Region) Rural Coordination Group met yesterday to discuss what the summer may hold and the challenges many farmers are facing in the southern half of the region.
The Group - Rural Support Trusts, Ministry for Primary Industries, Civil Defence Emergency Management and representatives from Federated Farmers, DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, and Fonterra – agreed the effects of the localised drought are visibly taking hold. Pasture growth has stopped and some summer feed crops have failed to establish or are of poor quality. Many farms are harvesting much less silage and hay than they would normally make for the following winter and have low surplus feed on hand.
“In the area more or less south of Mangamahu, Hunterville and Apiti, the farming situation has very quickly become difficult,” says Chalky Leary, Manawatu-Rangitikei Rural Family Support Trust representative and chair of the rural coordination group. 
“After a very wet winter and spring, these areas have had less than 30 to 40 percent of their normal rainfall in the past 30 days. Coastal Manawatu and Rangitikei and parts of Tararua have had no rain or less than 10 percent of their usual rainfall over the past 30 days.”
Dr Andrew Tait of NIWA says that the lack of rain is being exacerbated by extremely warm sea surfaces around New Zealand, driving high air temperatures and leading to very high rates of evapotranspiration – up to 5mm or 6mm a day in some locations. This means any benefits of a rainy day can quickly disappear, and significant rainfall will be needed to get back to a normal summer situation.
Turning from wet to dry so quickly this early in summer is impacting production, and yet it is a difficult time for many farmers to take action. This dry period is several months earlier than usual, and normally farmers would be in a better position to identify stock that could be quit early.
Many dairy farms are milking once a day and some winter-milking herds have been dried off early.
Others are considering drying off part of the herd, and some are being split into smaller herds to help better manage pasture utilisation and animal health in the dry conditions.
“Dairy farmers in the driest areas are also going through herds early for any likely cull cows and purchasing additional feed, including considering the costs for sourcing hay and baleage from further away areas,” says Rachel Cvitanovich, Ruapehu-Whanganui Rural Support Trust.
“While there’s no crystal ball, it’s timely to plan for the worst, while also hoping for the best. Unfortunately, it is not a good strategy to delay making decisions in the hope that the usual amount of rain is bound to turn up soon,” says Richard Morrison, Federated Farmers’ President for Manawatu-Rangitikei.
Farmers are being encouraged to plan and make early decisions around what they will do if they don’t get good rain in the next few weeks. This will include early booking of stock numbers expected to be sent for processing after pregnancy testing.  Doing this soon is important as much killing space is already booked up through to February.
“Similarly, if farmers expect to need more supplementary feed to get through any feed pinch until autumn rains arrive, they need to order it well in advance,” says Dame Margaret Millard, Chair of the Manawatu-Rangitikei Rural Family Support Trust.  “Supplies of feeds like PKE may not be available on the spot market later in the season if the dry conditions continue and some pastures are not regrowing after grazing.”
Fire risk will also increase in hot, dry conditions and farmers should take steps to reduce the risk on farm and develop fire evacuation procedures.

Your Rural Support Trust is here to help. If you need to get pointed in the right direction for advice or information? Concerned about a friend, a neighbour, a worker…. or just need a private chat? Our services are free & confidential. Call us on 0800 RURAL HELP (0800 787 254) or visit

“Keep in touch with neighbours, as many farmers are in the same position and sharing information can be useful.”
MPI, DairyNZ and B+L NZ also have good information for getting through droughts and dry weather