Hawkes Bay Drought 2007

August 2007
NIWA figures show that this autumn was one of the driest for 30 years, with rainfall less that 50 percent of average in the East Coast, Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa. In the Hawkes Bay it is said to have been the worst drought since 1983.

The drought started to hit farmers from mid February and only really broke in the second week of July. But farmers are still counting the costs and trying to manage their way through winter. As Meat & Wool NZ chairman Mike Petersen says, the only thing worse than low export farm prices, is low export farm prices and no feed!

Tim and Ross McCormick farm in partnership on a 492 hectare property in the Hatuma valley,15kms south of Waipukurau. It was the epicentre of the drought. In early June Waipukurau had had only 110mm of rain for the whole year, less than a third of what theyd expect.

The family run 2,400 composite ewes and usually in the region of 300 dairy beef. This season they have 63 dairy beef left on the property. The rest were sold as the drought bit.

In a good season theyd finish all their lambs and the system is all grass. This year theyve had to buy in bailage (from as far afield as Waiuku). One of the interesting aspects of this, is that because they are usually an all-grass system they dont have the equipment to feed out the big round bales.

Aside from the drop in cattle numbers and the lack of feed the McCormicks are also facing a 40% drop in scanning. Usually their 2 tooths would be scanning around 150%, this year it is 114%. It is a similar story with the mixed aged ewes, 170% down to 140% this season.

But on top of those production drops, the other big question is what are they going to feed those lambs on once they hit the ground?

So far Tim says there have been few stock deaths and little evidence of a heavy worm burden, which can be a concern for some farmers following the drought. Tim makes the comment that they are starting to get used to skinny ewes.

The rain, when it came, came with a cold spell, which inhibited grass growth.

Its put a huge stress on the available supply of supplements. These are now being brought into the area from all over the country. The East Coast Rural Support Trust has been set up to help farmers get in touch with feed suppliers. The cost of supplements in some areas has gone from $45 - $85 for a round bale of hay.

September will be the next crunch point for farmers as they go looking to buy new stock to replace animals sold at the peak of the drought. The objective in a drought is to still have enough productive stock in reasonable condition to make full use of the spring and not be exposed to having to restock on an inflated post-drought market.

Richard Lee has been a veterinarian in Hawkes Bay for many years. Hes seen a lot of client farmers tackling the issues raised by the drought over this past season. Richard has been involved with others in the district, helping them manage their way through the drought and its aftereffects.

Richard says there some key principles to follow:

Make decisions early.

Plan the whole winter - its a waste to feed some stock until money runs low and then decide to get rid of them

Match feed demand with cash and feed supply

Update plans regularly

Plan the recovery - Look at options for replacement stock, maybe prices are going to be too high and there may be other options.

Cut losses quickly discover at what point it is better to cut losses and sell stock rather than buying feed at exorbitant prices.

Prioritise Stock classes for restocking - Eg pregnancy scanning will allow removal of dry stock and preferential feeding of twins and singles

Sell early - Be prepared to sell capital stock if feed or grazing off is too expensive.

Focus on maximising income

Feed stock as well as possible.

Aside from the above principles Richard says farmers should be concentrating on assessing worm burdens, checking faecal egg counts at scanning and before set stocking for lambing. Hes got other advice for worm burdens including checking that the drench is doing the job.

Its acknowledged that the drought has brought a lot of stress on farmers and farm workers. Acknowledging that and looking for the signs of stress is part of the recovery process.