17 Sep 2015

Drought-stricken farmers brace for El Nino

8:10 am on 17 September 2015

North Canterbury farmers still dealing with a drought are bracing themselves for more misery as an El Nino weather pattern is forecast between now and April.

North Canterbury sheep and beef farmer Greg Chamberlain.

North Canterbury sheep and beef farmer Greg Chamberlain. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

North Canterbury sheep and beef farmer Greg Chamberlain said in the past six months, Cheviot has had less rainfall than the Sahara desert, and no major downpours in the past 15 months.

Mr Chamberlain said it was the driest he had seen it in 25 years of farming in the area; one creekbed hasn't flowed for the past year.

He said the colder-than-usual temperatures over autumn, a feature of El Nino that has already started to bite, had also stunted grass growth, leaving him no option but to sell off more than half his stock, taking his numbers from 4500 to 1600.

The other feature of an El Nino is drier-than-normal conditions to the east of the country.

cattle beast

Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"Most of the old cows, even the ones that have given us really good bulls, we've had to say they're going to have to go.

"That's been one of the hardest things, same with the sheep, you put years of breeding into them and building up a flock, the type that suits your country, and to have to sell them, we're going to have to replace them with stock from somewhere else.

"Probably makes you a bit more hesitant and wondering whether it's worth putting all that effort in again to build a flock, or what you do really."

With a lack of grass growth, Mr Chamberlain has been forced to buy in feed to sustain the 1600 cattle and sheep he has hung on to.

Mr Chamberlain said he was worried about the impact El Nino would have on those who were still hanging on to large numbers of stock in the hope of things improving.

Dust storm

Vincent Daly was farming the last time El Nino visited the country in 1997.

"I remember driving between Waipara and Amberley and the car being hit by clods from the dust storm...it went several miles out to sea and the planes flying into Christchurch, the pilots were reporting they were in a dust storm. Any rain we got just got blown away. It was pretty heart-breaking really."

Cheviot farmer Vincent Daly.

Cheviot farmer Vincent Daly. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

El Nino brings rain to the west and the mountains. Those drawing water out of Canterbury's Alpine Rivers courtesy of irrigation schemes should not have a problem, he said.

"It's more the dryland farmers that are going to be affected. It's gonna be pretty frustrating for them. They could be up on a hill looking down at green pastures and not knowing what to do themselves. It's pretty demoralising for them."

Mr Daly said that, unlike 1997, farmers in his area were now talking with each other more, sharing ideas and providing the emotional support which was crucial when the going got tough.

He was confident most farmers would get through without having to walk off their land but worried about the rural towns that service farmers.

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