Climate Adaptation for Hill Country Farming

September 2009

Farmers work with scientists to help them adapt to a changing climate

Tim Dinneen, who farms in an area of Hawke’s Bay traditionally thought very summer safe, is taking part in a project being run by scientist Gavin Kenny looking at how hill country farmers in the Bay are adapting to the changing climate.

Gavin has worked in climate change research for almost two decades. Climate change is such a difficult thing for farmers to get their heads around.

He sees his work on this project as an on-going two-way process of engagement with practical people to connect the science to their daily realities: making the science real and the responses real back the other way. Gavin has been in Hawke’s Bay for 8.5 years, and this work is a continuation of what he has been doing all that time. “To me the only real adaptation is what farmers do on the ground.”

The project is as much as engaging with farmers, as understanding what happens long term. It is not about trying to convert people into believing about climate change.

Tim has been farming for 18 years at Pakaututu on land his father and uncle developed from 1958. During this time he had a year at Massey doing Dip Ag, a year in Australia on a huge 1.3m acre outback station and four years running a logging crew in the 1990s. For the last 10 years he’s been running it on his own. His wife Kelly is training to be a teacher & won’t be there on the day. They have two small children, five-year-old Meg and three-year-old Lochie.

20 farmers from throughout Hawke’s Bay’s hill country are involved in a two-year project funded by the Sustainable Farming Fund to look at how they are adapting to climate change. The project is halfway through.

Gavin and his team have interviewed the 20 farmers at length, compiled all their information and run a workshop to present it recently in Havelock North.

More than half the farmers wanted to see unbiased and centralised information about sustainable farming practices and management in the hill country. Some wanted to see working models and on-farm research rather than monitor farms to show what was possible.

There was a need to communicate the science in an independent way without commercial bias.

“Show me a farm that has long-term sustainable farming policies associated with climate,” one farmer wrote. “Don’t just use the word climate change, use the word climate. Show me what is successful. Show me somewhere that has a plan going forward in terms of generating income, with flexibility and profitability.”

Rainfall variability is an important part of the Hawke’s Bay climate, and while most farmers believe the climate is changing, coping with the rainfall pattern is the biggest challenge. Wind is a big factor in determining droughts but the benefits of shelter in reducing wind run aren’t widely understood.

Three quarters of the farmers have their own or access to really good rainfall data going back 20 years or more. Extended dry autumns are creating serious management challenges.

Most of the farmers had altered their sheep to cattle ratio back in favour of cattle, and had more trading stock than previously.

Most farmers were working to secure on-farm water supplies. However there was no clear understanding of water sources, recharge rates, and the long-term sustainability of water supplies.

He found an urgent need to better understand the water issue in hill country including methods for storing and conserving water.

Part of the project is doing detailed farm plans on three farms, which will be turned into case studies.

Then for these three farms they will come up with some viable scenarios for land management in hill country Hawke’s Bay. The culmination of that will be a field day on each of the three farms with a farm plan presented and different ideas coming out of the project can be put out there to get wider discussion about practical ways farmers can think about.

Sheep and beef farmer Tim Dinneen has faced three consecutive years of drought, and now capital stock numbers are down 40% on pre-drought levels. He says they’ve been paying their bills but not making any money.

This project is timely and a good way “to upsmart myself. I thought it would be good to have a crack at it. If you do the same thing you get the same result,” he says.

“Previously we wintered 7300 stock units, and this year we are wintering 5100, of which 900 are on swedes.” He’s been feeding maize to 1350 ewes for the first time ever in the past month and 110 weaner cattle are now getting half their daily feed intake from palm kernel.

Tim is particularly keen to see research into suitable pasture species for hill country. Although he’s tried planting many different species, he keeps coming back to Nui ryegrass as it performs best.

He’s tried lots of new ryegrasses, cocksfoot, different clovers and chicory, also plantain. He grows 15-20ha of swedes a year to get through the winter, and they are used to feed the hoggets, because they are lambed. This area is then regrassed. He says plantain has done really well in with Nui, and so has red clover.

“We are not England, we don’t live in the Gulf Stream; we should be looking at grasses from Spain and southern Italy.” Grasses in Siberia grow at really low temperatures, elephant grasses in India grow the fastest in the world, the prairie grasslands of the US, and the Darling Downs in Queensland produce amazing grasses. Why can’t they be crossed to produce a supergrass?

He has his own direct drill, so he’s going to put down a trial this coming year of a row of different species side by side to see how they go. Things like lucerne and lupins.

We have to try and change our style of farming to leave longer residuals after grazing in summer, so the ground doesn’t dry out so fast.

Most of the farm faces north, so it is quite exposed to the wind and sun. We need plants that will grow and thrive on hill country.

“It’s hard to get hold of this information – I feel the hill country farmers are a little bit left out. No-one is really doing a lot of research on what grows well on hill country.”

He says although they are considered to farm in an area with a good rainfall, they are kind of in a double rainshadow. Recently the guys just down the road had 100mm of rain from the south but they only got 50mm.

Since 2001 Tim has been planting 5ha of pines a year, and this winter he is putting 24ha to catch up. This gives him a 10 year cycle of pines on the farm which is part of his succession/ retirement plan for later on.

Inside this area is 5ha of flat land where he’s putting in a three-tier fodder crop system.

The upper layer of fodder will come from poplars spaced every three metre. The shrub layer of blue lupin and tree lucerne will be under-planted with clover and grass.

This area won’t be grazed for the next couple of years, giving the plantings time to establish. He got the idea last year when he planted 600 willows on the river banks, because where the trees created shade, good green grass grew.

Tim is also noticing a change in the spread of rain during the year. While the average rainfall is 1100mm, most of it comes in winter, and in big falls. “We had 250mm of rain last month in one dump.”

The changes in the climate have forced him to think about completely different farming systems, he says.

He has quite a big area of pines which are 15 years old and in a joint venture with Rayonier. This year the pine planting is being done in conjunction with the Regional Council.

The farm has had a lot of development done in the past few years, although Tim admits his timing could have been better. He’s spent a lot of money spraying and also fencing, and developed about 220ha of regenerated land to bring the effective area up to 815ha.

His policy is that he wants every ha of the farm doing something, so that’s why the pines are being planted on steep sidlings which don’t grow much grass. He’s fenced off almost all the 15km of boundary with the Mohaka River and retired it. Only about 500m of a cliff isn’t fenced. And a lot of this land has been in blackberry and is now planted with pines.

The ewe flock is a quarter East Friesian and three quarters Romney with the main flock ewes mated to half Friesian half Romney rams. The five and six year ewes are mated to South Suffolk Texel cross rams for terminal lamb production.

From 4500 to 5200 lambs are produced each year, with about 2000 weaned off their mothers and sold. Then the rest are finished on the farm, with maybe the last 500 sold store in early April.