Hawke’s Bay farmer Peter Tod has endured more than his share of tough years in the region, and has adapted his family operation over the past 20 years to be more nimble and resilient in the face of dry year risk.
He has been recognised for his dryland skills and was awarded the Grasslands Memorial Trust award in 1999 and Hawke’s Bay Farmer of the Year in ’98.
“Farming here in Otane, it would be one of the two driest parts of Hawke’s Bay. We have certainly made some big changes to our farm system in response to that, compared to how my father used to farm here,” he said.
He points to a significant reduction in breeding ewe numbers, down from a high of 5000 to only 500, with them replaced with higher numbers of winter lambs and intensively managed finishing cattle.
Winter feed crops are out due to their environmental impact, while spring barley is now replaced with winter sown barley. Green feed crops come in behind the winter barley in December, to be grazed in March-April.
“This allows us to get the lambs on earlier in winter,” he said.
Despite being a dryland operation, he has seen barley crop yields surge from the two to three tonnes a hectare average to up to 10t a hectare.
“And that has come thanks to better crop genetics, better fungicides and weed control, and feeding the crop better,” he said.
“New Zealand farmers can be notorious for not feeding their crops as well as they should to get the most out of them.”
But the gains, despite dry spells, have also come thanks to a ruthless adherence to decision-making, timing and action.
“With summer crops more farmers need to get better at growing them. I think there is still a reasonably casual approach to the timing of crops here,” he said.
He also believes pasture management skills need to be tightened up and much could be taken from dairy farmers’ skills.
“It’s a case of knowing that what is above ground is below the ground – if you have six inches of grass above, you have six inches of roots below.
“All those guys set stocking and hammering their grass will damage the root structures below, pulling it to the surface to be exposed to wind. If we get another big dry, there is not a lot of resilience there in pastures.”
Tod’s operation has been set up with feed for next year in place now, and he is cautiously eyeing a summer that could be dry again.
“The indications are it could be hellishly dry. All the breeding operations have their backs to the wall trying to climb out of the last drought. Things can compound quickly, another big dry means there is not a lot of resilience there,” he said.
Tod has worked closely over the years with seed companies, determining what does and doesn’t do well in the dry.
Smart operators already have crops in the ground. His own summer green feed programme finishes this week, having had chosen paddocks sprayed out a month ago and taking advantage of winter’s dry conditions has him running a month ahead of usual.
Tod says his advice could be dismissed by some, on grounds he is farming on largely flat country.
“But it is by no means the best country. The clay soils here dry out quickly and it can be a tough cropping area,” he said.
Despite his success with dryland farming, Tod says he was still wholly supporting water storage projects.
“Despite being on clay soil, we have not gone down the irrigation route, yet,” he said.
But he says his property does have potential for farm water storage and centre pivots, enabling 300ha of their 840ha to be watered.
Meantime, he is encouraged by the passion and understanding some of the next generation, including his son Sam, have for good, early decision-making.
“People have to get better at the basics, making decisions early and not being frightened to hold their hand up and seek advice before it’s too late,” he said.