‘Sheer weight’ of multiple issues taking toll on farmers

The ‘‘sheer weight’’ of issues facing farmers in Otago and Southland is taking a serious toll on their mental health and wellbeing, a Beef + Lamb New Zealand Economic Service report says.

The annual lamb crop report, released this week, said morale among sheep and beef farmers in the two regions was low.

The implications for farming practices and effects on profitability of government policies announced affecting the sector were unclear but likely to be far reaching.

While policies covering freshwater and greenhouse gas emissions were prominent, the likes of Mycoplasma bovis, reform of the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme, tightening of bank lending arrangements, the One Billion Trees programme, winter grazing practices, biodiversity, urban perception of farming, and how to manage succession were also having notable impacts.

Tragically, it had overwhelmed some farmers who had taken their own lives, the report said.

The wider implications on community wellbeing, regional employment and services, and businesses in rural areas and towns were of concern, but there was widespread feeling those concerns were not being heard by policymakers.

Product prices — except for crossbred wool — were strong and interest rates were low, which allowed for capital spending to address future requirements such as riparian fencing and stock water schemes.

In Marlborough-Canterbury, the report said farmers were ‘‘simply tired’’, having struggled to contribute to consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill, Essential Freshwater proposals and Environment Canterbury’s Plan Change 7 while trying to manage lambing, calving and crop establishment for the coming season.

While few were actively trying to sell their farms, many had suggested it might be unkind to encourage the next generation to take on the farm operation.

Nationally, the number of lambs tailed in spring 2019 decreased by 2.4% or 552,000 head on the previous spring, to 22.7 million head.

Most of the decline occurred in the South Island where Otago, in particular, really struggled due to drier conditions leading to lower feed availability, Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Economic Service chief economist Andrew Burtt said.

Otago recorded an average lambing percentage of 116.6%, a decrease of 5.4 percentage points from 2018, continuing the decline since the 142.3% achieved in 2017. It was the lowest result since 2010.

The total number of lambs dropped 4.5% to 3.71 million while numbers dropped 3.4% to 3.53 million in Southland.

The Otago result was driven by poor weather and feed conditions having a negative impact on lambing percentages, particularly in ewes but some hoggets were also affected.

The number of ewes was similar to the previous season but scanning rates were lower, affected by the previous dry autumn mainly in the Clutha district, the report said.

In Southland, lamb survival was adversely affected by unsettled weather conditions during the lambing period. In addition, fewer ewes were mated and scanning rates were slightly lower than usual.

Lamb growth rates were above average in the North Island due to good levels of feed, and lower in the South Island due to cold weather and lack of sun.

Early schedule prices were ‘‘exceptionally strong’’ and some regions were achieving record high prices for lambs.

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