Storm Recovery in Southland

April 2011

Farmers adjust their management systems to help recover after big storm events

For one week in September last year (17th to 24th September 2010) Southland and South Otago were devastated by snow storms, high winds, hail and heavy rain. It came in the middle of lambing and resulted in an estimated 800,000 lamb deaths plus a huge number of ewes. The economic impact on the region was well over $100 million and hundreds of farms were hit with effects which will take two to three years for recovery. We talk to two of the sheep farmers affected.

David and Julie Clarke are sheep and cattle farming on 297ha of easy rolling country in eastern Southland, at 80-130m above sea level. They are the current Beef & Lamb NZ monitor farmers for the Southland region. They have about 3000 composite ewes which are mated to terminal sires, including Dorset Down, Suffolk, South Suffolk and Texel. The flock scans (for pregnancy) at 175% lambs and normally produces 145 to 150% lambs survival. However the September storm killed new-born lambs and the tailing percentage this year was only 116%. David also had some older ewe losses in the snow.

David has taken on dairy grazers because of the reduced lamb numbers along with some store lambs, to make up lost income. He is also trying to finish his lambs to higher slaughter weights, but that has not been very successful in a dry summer. His drafting programme is well behind usual.

“It was the impact of the bad start, when lambs didn’t get enough milk from the ewes.” However a very growthy November enabled all winter supplements to be saved before Christmas. The ewes are now in good order and David expects them to be at satisfactory weights for mating.

David and Helen Rose are sheep farming on 206ha (189ha effective) on the flats and terraces of the Oreti River, about 30 minutes north of Invercargill. David is a former president of Southland Federated Farmers and present National Board member of the Federation with policy responsibilities which include adverse events. The Rose farm was caught up in the biggest adverse event in Southland and South Otago for decades – the week-long storm last September. However David is quick to point out that there were many farms in the region which were worse-hit than him.

By comparing this year’s tailing figures against previous years, reference to his ewe scanning figures from mid-July, and the tallies of dead lambs put out at the front gate for slink skin collection, David believes he lost a total of 946 lambs during the storm week (September 17 to 24). He has calculated the storm reduced the lambing percentage by 38%. The 2010 lambing percentage was 112% versus the expected 150% from his fertile TEFRom ewes. They scanned 181% in July, the highest David has recorded, were in very good condition and the 2009 lambing percentage was 150%.

“We were set up to do better than the previous year.” David had employed a short-term lambing shepherd and expected over half of his lambs to be born in that week. The rams went out on April 17 and the lambing began on September 12. “We work all year towards the lambing and it should be the best time of the year (in good weather).” David did not have any extra ewe deaths as a result of the storm, although many other Southland sheep farmers did. He did have the heartbreaking job of picking up dead lambs and sorting out the wet/dry ewes (those which lost lambs) to be sold for slaughter.

The weather forecast for Southland on Thursday, September 16 was terrible, but the ewes were in good condition, feed levels were good and shelter was available in the lambing paddocks. It snowed on Friday and Saturday and David Rose received about 10cm in total. Many other districts got twice that, and the Southland stadium roof collapsed in Invercargill. This was the worst snow storm in more than 60 years. Fortunately, the snow on the Rose farm thawed on Sunday, but remained on the ground elsewhere over most of the province. However Monday through Thursday saw continual bad weather with driving hail and constant rain – 15 to 20mm per day.

This rain came from the north, rather than the normal southerly direction and “turned shelter belts inside out”. Sheep were exposed to the elements because of the positioning of paddocks and shelter belts relative to the weather direction. David said some of his worst lamb losses came in sheltered areas, where the ground turned to mud, the new-born lambs got coated and heavy, couldn’t get up and died. David spoke of his heartbreak at seeing ewes push and push at dead lambs trying to get them to rise, but just rolling them in more mud. Ewes also suffered badly from mud-coated teats, when the skin cracked and got infected. The loss of pasture to storm and hoof damage and no grass growth dictated destocking of the wet/dry ewes.

“At least I had them to sell – many did not.”

David found it too expensive following the storm to restock cattle and does not plan to increase his ewe lambs retained for replacements above the normal 600. While his lamb numbers were cut by the storm, and the wet/dry ewes were culled after the storm, he will stick with the surviving ewe numbers plus the 2010 ewe lambs, now hoggets, for possible mating this autumn.

Lambs are being finished to higher carcass weights this year (19kg+). The plan is to aim for 2kg CW more and recover some of the storm costs.

Swede crops were sown in early December and were under some pressure because Southland got very dry during December and January. That was in contrast to the extraordinary pasture growth rates in November of up to 100kg/day/ha DM.

David and Helen are in a Southland district where dairy farming has arrived in recent years. They have plenty of options such as dairy heifer grazing or selling grass for winter supplement. David has been particularly passionate about the sheep industry and getting a greater share of the final price back to farmers.

“Sheep farming has not been buoyant down here anyway and the storm was the last thing we needed for the future of the sheep and beef industry,” he said. “However, farmers have to work with adverse events.”