25 Jan 2018

Drought-hit South Island farmers hope for rain

10:19 am on 25 January 2018

Farmers in the drought-hit Buller and Grey districts on the South Island's West Coast are preparing for things to get worse before they get better.

At the beginning of the year many parts of Canterbury were drought stricken.

At the beginning of the year many parts of Canterbury were drought stricken. Photo: RNZ / Patrick Phelps

February is usually the region's driest month - but unseasonably hot conditions since November have meant some farmers have already had to cut down on milking and de-stock.

Late last year the government declared the drought in Taranaki, Manawatu-Whanganui and Wellington a medium-scale adverse event and a fortnight ago it expanded the classification to also cover the Grey and Buller districts.

Federated Farmers West Coast president Peter Langford, who owns a dairy farm in Karamea, said the typically wet region had been struggling through the unusually dry start to summer.

"When you have a rain forest and you're on the westerly aspect in front of mountains you don't expect to get too much drought at all ... we normally get free irrigation [from the rain]," he said.

A Cape Foulwind dairy farmer in Buller, John Milne, said despite some small pockets of rain, the soil moisture was the driest it had been in January in at least 18 years and there was little grass around.

Mr Milne said farmers were having to use supplementary feed, usually saved for winter, and in December he cut down to only milking his 300-strong heard once a day so the stock would stay in good condition.

"There's some farms around here that are [having to milk] once a day and historically they've never done that ... they've always stuck with twice a day until the end of the season," he said.

"So it's having quite an impact on milk flow in the area at the moment."

Mr Milne said he had culled about 10 percent of his cows and if the dry weather continued - it was possible any cows who were not in calf this season would go to the freezing works.

Mr Milne said de-stocking was a difficult decision to make, but farmers had to consider the welfare of the animals.

Mr Langford said on his farm milking had also been cut down to once a day and he had sent stock to the freezing works.

It was a stressful and costly time for drought hit-farmers and some were feeling burnt-out, he said.

"I'd have to admit to that, certainly myself, quite a few others probably are getting stretched to their limits and wanting a fortnight off the farm ... but who is gong to look after their farm for a fortnight so they can have a break?"

The West Coast Rural Support Trust has been given $50,000 from the government to help with the drought - which the trust said would go towards organising community events and bringing in experts to give advice to farmers.

MetService said February was usually the driest month for the coast and while some rain was expected late next week, that could be the last decent dousing for a while.

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