Feed shortage compounds problems

The after-effects of a dry spell extending back to last December with scorching summer...
The after-effects of a dry spell extending back to last December with scorching summer temperatures is being felt in North Canterbury. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Triplet-carrying ewes are being exited by farmers as feed runs low in parts of dry North Canterbury.

Costly extra feed such as barley, palm kernel extract and baleage is being brought in with stock numbers reduced, including ewes bearing triplets going down the road to the freezing works.

Farmers are taking these precautions for a dry spell extending since last December.

This is being compounded by low lamb and sheepmeat returns and rising transport costs with the cost of trucking stock to the likes of Southland uneconomic.

A hay bale priced at about $70 is costing farmers about $70 to transport to their properties. While grain stocks have dropped in price with good availability, transport costs are also making this prohibitive.

Hardest-hit areas mainly lie in sheep country on dryland foothills with farmers feeding at maintenance levels to hold feed resources.

Federated Farmers North Canterbury president Karl Dean said the dry situation in the upper Selwyn and Hurunui catchment was likely as bad as 2014-15.

"Unfortunately, the stock prices are about the same so on-farm costs have gone up, but stock prices are well below what’s required for these people. The dry in itself would be fine and farmers would be OK, but it’s the triple whammy of interest rates quite high looking at the last decades and also the stock prices being so low in comparison to normally where they would be."

The upper Selwyn including the Rakaia, Lake Coleridge and Sheffield areas has not faced a drought like this for some times as it normally catches the nor’west spillover rain.

Mr Dean said the Hurunui region had been through drought before, but the added transportation costs were making it difficult getting stock to outside grazing or to get feed in.

A lot of farmers had, sensibly, made early decisions, he said.

"There’s talk now and I’ve had quite a few farmers that have decided to cull ewes carrying triplets purely because they know they can’t carry them through. They are culling capital stock effectively they would otherwise normally keep. A lot of them have chosen to get rid of lambing their ewe hoggets or to send them up the way for grazing. A lot just didn’t bother putting rams out to ewe hoggets knowing it’s not the impact now that’s the problem, it’s what’s the impact going to be in two to three months’ time when there’s a heavy snowfall and a large amount of stock to feed that will be starting to lamb down in some of these areas then they start to face bigger issues."

He said the main problem at the moment was there was no market for the triplet-carrying ewes as sheep returns were subdued on top of high transport costs.

To truck a ewe down south and back again was almost getting near the value of a ewe at about $5.50 a kilogram for cartage at a unit load, he said.

"It adds up pretty quick and eight to nine years ago when we had the last big drought it wasn’t really an issue because the stock prices were the same, but the cost of transport and the cost of the grazing were about half of what they are now."

Some dryland farmers had reduced winter grazing of dairy cows which eroded their income for buying feed for their ewe flock.

However, most farmers had scanned for surprisingly good results.

"It’s sort of a positive negative as it’s great news, but not great news if you can’t get rid of those ewes and the likes of those triplets are a shame, but people are making the right calls knowing they most likely wouldn’t have the feed for those animals. They will be the ones that struggle if there is a snow storm versus a single or a twin. There will be too many mouths to feed and the risk of an underweight ewe with no ability to fatten her over the winter period."

Most farmers had a good spring until it started turning dry in December last year and continuing into an autumn drought heading into winter.

Any rain from early May onwards will not help for growing feed until ground temperatures warm up.

Mr Dean said winter feed crops were yielding eight tonnes a hectare instead of 20 tonnes a hectare on the sheep country.

"If we look back at 2014-15 those were the crops that got people through as they got enough rain in autumn to grow those crops, but this year that hasn’t happened. They don’t [enter break-even territory]."

Most irrigated farmers were well off as long as rain arrived in spring, river levels rose and water restrictions were not enforced.

"I did look at a map from ECan and if people had to irrigate in May most of the irrigation systems would be shut off due to flow restrictions. That puts the moisture deficits into perspective ... I hope it’s not the case, but the worse, worse-case scenario for irrigated farmers would be to get through to spring and river levels would still be too low to turn on the irrigation."

Amuri Basin is a combination of surface and well water takes.

Dairy farmers with greater cash flows had flexibility to winter graze cows in Mid Canterbury as milk price forecasts were "reasonable" at this stage.

Mr Dean said the unlocking of government funds required an animal welfare issue.

"An animal welfare issue is only a big snow storm away and that’s not something that could be quickly fixed if you are under a foot of snow because these are the areas that get snow. You need to have a cache of feed sitting there for that event as it would take time to get feed into those areas when an event hits and therefore that would result in animal welfare issues. Unlocking that funding earlier to use it more for prevention would be my main magic wand that I would like to see happen."

Meanwhile, central South Island farmers are being advised to complete a winter feed budget, or use the Feedsmart app, to know how much feed they will need to get through to lambing and calving.

Beef +Lamb NZ says a drier autumn has pushed farmers to start feeding their silage earlier and get on to winter forage crops sooner than budgeted, even though this would tighten feed in August and September.



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