Farmers desperate for rain

Graphic: NIWA
Graphic: NIWA
With no grass, Dunback farmer Ken Fergusson is feeding barley to his ewes. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
With no grass, Dunback farmer Ken Fergusson is feeding barley to his ewes. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

The seemingly endless summer produced balmy days across Otago but the unseasonably warm start to autumn has caused further headaches for drought-hit farmers.

Niwa statistics show Dunedin is on track to record its second-lowest autumn rainfall on record with about three weeks to go before winter officially starts.

Although another 6mm of rain fell yesterday, Dunedin recorded just 53mm of rain between March 1 and May 7, just 6mm more than the 1939 record low.

Other parts of Otago also had extremely low rainfall for the same period.

MetService meteorologist Georgina Griffiths said it had been "running extremely warm'' because of a combination of frequent northerly winds and "much warmer than usual'' seas around the coast.

February was Otago's warmest month on record and temperatures averaged 1.5degC above normal in March and April.

May has continued to be mild. The mercury at Dunedin Airport reached 26.5degC on May 4, a May record since records began there in 1962.

"Even though temperatures over the next fortnight in Otago look considerably cooler than we've seen this year, Otago is currently running on track to record one of its warmest autumns ever,'' Ms Griffiths said.

The good news was that more rain was expected this month, she said.

East Taieri farmer Brian Thomson said rain in January helped produce crops for winter feed, which helped, but rain in winter would determine how dire spring would be.

It was the driest he had seen it since the same time in 1974, when he had to start feeding stock in April.

He said they were battling along and looking at feeding nuts to stock, something he had never had to do.

"We've enjoyed the summer for the temperatures but it doesn't help the grass grow.''

There was still a "window of opportunity'' for rain before winter but Mr Thomson was not holding any high hopes.

It was the same at Dunback, where farmer Ken Fergusson received a partial reprieve from the big dry in January, but it had since returned.

"July-August will be the crunch time for us, when it gets close to lambing,'' he said.

Like Mr Thomson, Mr Fergusson would get through winter all right, but if there was no winter or spring growth, pregnant ewes and their lambs would suffer.

Federated Farmers Otago provincial president Phill Hunt said "things were still pretty tight'' for all farmers in the region, although Wanaka, where he has a farm, had seen some growth in the last few weeks with more consistent rain.

"We need some widespread, heavy rains over the winter,'' he said.

"Ideally, it will be a warm, wet winter [but] I don't think that's realistic for the climate we live in.''

It had been a double-blow for farmers over summer as low sheep and dairy prices coupled with dry conditions, he said.

Federated Farmers North Otago provincial president Richard Strowger said it was "probably drier now than this time last year''. He was worried for next spring if there was no rain over winter.

There was no concern from skifields yet, despite the unseasonably warm temperatures and next to no snow on the hills.NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson said Coronet Peak and the Remarkables were still on track to open on time on June 11 and June 18 respectively.

"We've still got a lot of time to go. We're full on into recruitment right now.''

The mountains had had two "dustings'' this year and he was optimistic temperatures would drop enough in the next three weeks to start snow-making.

In Wanaka, snow was forecast for Cardrona Alpine Resort tomorrow and snow-making was scheduled to start then too.

Rain around the region yesterday and forecast to continue tomorrow would not be enough to curb the drought, Niwa National Climate Centre principal scientist Chris Brandolino said.

The weather patterns would change in the coming weeks, becoming a little more "unsettled'', but the predicted cold snaps would not immediately change what was a "long-term impact'' on soil moisture levels, he said.

He still expected warmer than normal temperatures for this time of year and only a ``big weather event'' would have a marked impact.


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