Drought time to assess systems

Sheep and beef farmers Brendon and Paula Cross, of Portobello, are changing the way thet farming...
Sheep and beef farmers Brendon and Paula Cross, of Portobello, are changing the way thet farming operation to get through the drought in Otago. PHOTOS: SHAWN MCAVINUE
A drought has been declared for the first time in the 25 years Brendon and Paula Cross have been sheep and beef farming on Otago Peninsula.

Late last month, Agriculture and Rural Communities Minister Damien O’Connor announced the Government was expanding its drought support funding to include Otago.

Mr O’Connor said more Government funding would ensure feed support services could continue and extra wellbeing assistance would be available to more farmers affected by drought.

Mr Cross, speaking to Southern Rural Life five days after the drought was declared, said although they would not seek support, for them the drought classification was significant as it acknowledged the "struggle’’ of farmers across the region.

"It’s been the most challenging time in my farming career — no doubt about it.’’

The couple farmed about 900ha on the peninsula, running about 4000 ewes, 35 breeding cows and 20 finishing cattle.

A lack of rain this season had stunted growth on the mostly all-grass system on the peninsula properties they farmed — Roselle Farm, a 200ha property on the shore of Otago Harbour, and lease-blocks Sandymount, about 280ha on the peninsula’s seaward coast and Harbour Cone, 330ha near Larnach Castle.

The usual farm system included sending 60% of the about 1000 ewe lambs on the farm from the hard hill country of the peninsula to a "more consistent’’ South Otago farm for growing out from February each year.

Sheep and beef farmers Brendon and Paula Cross relax on a branch of a poplar tree felled on their...
Sheep and beef farmers Brendon and Paula Cross relax on a branch of a poplar tree felled on their drought-hit farm in February so their stock could eat the leaves. PHOTOS: SHAWN MCAVINUE
As part payment for the grazing, the rising hoggets were mated and lambed and the South Otago farmers kept the offspring.

The sheep were returned to the peninsula as two-tooths.

As this season was dry, every ewe lamb had been sent away for grazing.

However, the drought meant the grazier in South Otago was also battling dry conditions.

When he set up the grazing arrangement about six years ago, he never expected dry conditions to be an issue for South Otago.

Consequently, the system might need to be refined.

The current system of being able to send stock away for grazing, buying in supplementary feed and selling store stock early was designed to combat dry conditions.

The dry conditions had forced him to make "more aggressive’’ decisions in regards to selling stock this year.

"We’ve also had to sell at lighter weights.’’

As a result, the farm would take a financial hit but reduced stock numbers would make it easier to get through the drought.

The farm had been drier than normal for the past three Aprils.

The ewes entered mating in "OK condition’’ and were given feed, such as baleage and sheep nuts, to maintain mating performance.

However, pregnancy scanning rates might be lower than usual in early July.

The frustration of dry conditions was knowing how well a farm system could perform if more rain had fallen.

"It’s those missed opportunities.’’

If any positive was to be taken from a drought, it was the opportunity to assess how a system had performed, to highlight if changes could be made if dry conditions became "the new normal’’.

"As farmers, we are continually doing that but in times like this, it’s important to stop, take a breath and reassess if we’ve done everything right this year.’’

Changes could be made to cater for the conditions include running a more suitable mix of stock and improving your farm system.

A farm system had to be flexible to minimise the impact of a bad year, so it could improve more quickly in a good year.

During a dry year, it was important to keep making decisions.

"It can be hard because they are usually unpalatable decisions as they are going to cost you money.’’

The decisions had to be made to get through the next period, he said.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand had information on its website to help farmers get through dry conditions.

The drought made him busier, as he was driving his tractor between the peninsula blocks to feed the stock.

"It soaks up a lot of time.’’

A decision would be made in the coming weeks if more supplementary feed needed to be brought in.

A booming rabbit population on parts of the peninsula was a "significant problem’’ and added to the feed shortage, he said.

"It makes it tougher.’’

Mrs Cross said although the Government was providing drought support now, farmers might feel the impact later.

For example, now they could afford to buy feed because they had sold stock.

However, the extent of the future financial "hurt’’ was unknown, as it was impacted by lower lambing percentages and a need to buy replacement stock.

Farmers might need support services more in six months than they did now, Mrs Cross said.

In a statement, Mr O’Connor encouraged farmers who needed help to do a feed budget to get them through winter, to contact the national feed planning service.

"Alternatively, the feed co-ordination service can help farmers who need supplementary feed immediately."

Farmers in Otago, Mid Canterbury, South Canterbury, North Canterbury, Marlborough and the Chatham Islands could apply for assistance until November 30.

Support was available in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington and Tasman regions, and the Manawatu-Rangitikei, Tararua and Nelson until June 30, when it would be reviewed.

Feed planning support can be accessed by phoning 0800 BEEFLAMB (0800 233-352) or 0800 4 DairyNZ (0800 432-479-69).

Farmers who needed wellbeing support should call their Rural Support Trust on 0800 RURAL HELP or 0800 787-254.

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