By Neal Wallace and Annette Scott
The first signs of an El Niño weather system are appearing, with dry conditions taking hold in some eastern regions.
“We’re getting close to an El Niño being announced. We’re seeing it more in the atmosphere than we did two months ago,” WeatherWatch head forecaster Philip Duncan said.
El Niño generally means wet conditions on the west coasts and dry in the east, and Duncan said that is occurring in pockets on both coasts and will strengthen through summer.
“It’s likely to be generally drier and warmer with more westerly weather conditions, but there are likely to be rainmakers coming through.”
NIWA reports this past winter was New Zealand’s fifth warmest since records began, and in many regions rainfall was below average.
Duncan is forecasting little rain and warm temperatures for most of the country for the next two weeks.
North Island eastern areas that have endured 18 months of persistent wet weather are finally drying out but North Otago and parts of Canterbury had an extremely dry winter and have had little rain for six weeks.
North Otago Federated Farmers president Myfanwy Alexander said just 5mm has fallen in the past six weeks.
Irrigation started last month and warm temperatures have prompted pasture growth.
“I think it is going to be a long irrigation season.”
Irrigators in some districts began working as soon as temperatures warmed.
Coastal parts of South Canterbury are similarly dry, with local mixed cropping farmer and Federated Farmers national vice-president Colin Hurst recording just 6mm for August and 238mm for the year to date, less than half the 600mm average rainfall for the region.
The conditions are not yet having an impact, but that could change without a decent rain, he said.
The clods are hard and cool, and spring soil temperatures are stunting growth in Canterbury.
Irrigators are working where they can while others are waiting for irrigation companies to crank up for the season.
“The winter was kind, but it was 23 July that we had our last decent rain. A bit of a shower would be good again now,” Methven cropping farmer Darrell Hydes said.
If there is no rain soon, cropping farmers will be starting irrigators to wash in pre-emergence spraying of crop nutrients and to break up clods.
If the norwest wind continues as it has this week, Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers dairy chair Nick Giera said, irrigators will be coming out.
“Some have started now. Any rainfall has been fairly localised so coastal areas had some spring rain earlier that farmers higher up the plains missed out on.”
In the North Island a month of dry weather has been welcomed by farmers from Wairarapa to the east coast.
David Hayes, the federation’s Wairarapa president, said spring has been favourable and after a tough winter following a wet year, pasture is responding.
Jim Galloway from Hawke’s Bay said after a similarly tough 18 months, August was dry, which provided some relief.
Parts of Hawke’s Bay have had just 2m of rain so far this year following 1800mm last year.
Cropping farmers have enjoyed dry conditions to sow crops, a contrast to last year when it was extremely wet.
Galloway said El Niño conditions will be difficult for farmers.
“It would be another smack around the ears. We’ve had a tough winter, livestock prices are not flash and if it gets dry, it will make it hard.”
Further north, around Ruatoria, conditions are cooler than ideal and farmers are looking for some warm dry weather.
The federation’s Gisborne-Wairoa president, Hunaara Waerehu, said there is sufficient feed but they would like some heat.
The sun has been welcomed in Manawatū after what Ian Strahan, the Manawatu-Rangitīkei Federated Farmers president, called one of the nastiest wet winters in recent years.
Subsequent warm, dry days have helped with calving and lambing and arable farmers are busy.
Parts of Waikato are still struggling from low grass covers, with some dairy farmers milking once a day.
The region’s Federated Farmers president, Keith Holmes, said farmers have struggled all year to try to build up a pasture bank or fund the purchase of supplementary feed, and that shortage is plaguing some areas.
Feed supplies in mid-September are considered a marker for the start of the season, and Holmes doubts they will be at an ideal level.