When it becomes obvious that stock needs are going to exceed grass growth, it’s time to plan. Farmers should draw up a strategic plan of action to be implemented at pre-determined stages as drought conditions continue.
Those are words written 30 years ago for a NZ Grasslands Association conference by Tony Harvie, former chair of Federated Farmers Te Karaka Branch, Gisborne.
The El Niño climate cycle we’re now in typically means stronger and more frequent winds from the west during summer, likely to bring dryness in eastern areas and more rain in the west.
Speaking to Federated Farmers in early October, Harvie says he’s farmed through two El Niño droughts.
“I learned to heed advice early and not procrastinate, hoping.”
Harvie’s advice to farmers today is to reduce feed demand early; unload all dry stock, cull and wean early.
“Inform your stock agents and transport carriers weeks in advance of the dates you have planned to get the stock off. Their co-operation is essential.
“There’s no money in an over-stocked market for poor-conditioned stock.”
Harvie urges farmers to read advice and guides from the ag levy bodies now, “not after the event has arrived, when there is potential for the market to be jammed with unwanted stock”.
Federated Farmers Hawke’s Bay President Jim Galloway says NIWA and the district council are saying the area is “basically in the same situation now as the lead-up to 2019/20, when the first of those big droughts came two in a row.
“But it’s still back of mind for some because they’re still in recovery mode from Cyclone Gabrielle.”
For many, the financial hurt continues from income disruption and damage wreaked during that storm and flooding, “never mind whatever hardship might be ahead of them”, says Galloway.
“Returns have dropped; input costs are up. So, for some of those many hundreds of farmers impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle, they were already facing years of recovery. It will really hurt to have a very dry summer on top of that.”
It’s too early to fret about the risk of drought, “but it’s not too early to plan”, says Galloway.
He says having a plan can ease the mental burden, and the plan should have triggers in it.
“For example, when available feed gets to ‘X’ level, I will sell the store lambs and steers; when it gets to ‘Y’, I’ll get rid of the old ewes; and so on.
“Without that plan, you can take too long to make decisions, and the downsides can be more impactful.”
Galloway recalls talking with someone who’d farmed through several droughts.
“They said the hardest decision to make is to sell some stock you don’t want to sell. But when they’re actually on the truck, it’s the best decision you’ve ever made.”
“It’s like a huge weight is off – relief that you’ve made a decision that alleviates some of the problem.”
For the last few months, most of the Hawke’s Bay was well behind grass growth rates, so there’s been pressure on feed supplies. Lamb survival rates have been very pleasing but that means more mouths to feed, says Galloway.
When Galloway spoke to us on October 19, his district was getting the best period of growth for some time, but a few weeks of wind and no rain “and it could go off pretty quick”.
He’s particularly concerned about the Cyclone Gabrielle-impacted farmers who will struggle to achieve good pasture management because internal fences are still down, despite much hard work to repair and replace.
Others have lost perhaps 5-10% of their pasture to slips.
Rhea Dasent, Hawke’s Bay-based senior policy advisor for Federated Farmers and a farmer in the area, says as well as causing fencing woes, the cyclone took out a lot of water reticulation.
“Stock drinking water is a big concern for a lot of people because they had pumps, sheds, bores and so on destroyed or inundated if they were in low-lying areas. A neighbour of ours has only just got their water pump going again in the last month.”
Fingers are crossed for good hauls of baleage in the coming harvest season. Cyclone floods floated away bales in paddocks, and other bales were spoiled by moisture.
On the Dasent farm, they’re sowing nine hectares in Kestral Kale because it puts down long tap roots and is resistant to dry conditions. Oats are another popular supplementary feed option for local farmers when grass dries out.
For those still reeling from Cyclone Gabrielle losses, the costs of fertiliser, seed and putting in the crops weigh heavily, says Dasent.
She agrees that having a plan of action can relieve stress.
“Better that than spending most of your day with questions and worries about what to do and when churning around constantly in your mind.”
One silver lining – at least there aren’t the covid lockdowns that accompanied the last ‘dry’, with restricted ability to get off-farm and talk to others.
“That’s huge for mental resilience,” says Dasent.
“We’ll have other options we didn’t have in 2020 too: the processing plants won’t be operating at half-speed, and hopefully, if the need arises, we’ll be able to sell stock to other regions or even to the South Island.”
Keep talking to your advisors, your neighbours and each other, says Jim Galloway.
“There’s always help out there if you need it.”
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.