Wednesday, April 24, 2024

‘Very serious dry’ scorches top of the south

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‘The hills are that awful grey colour they go when it’s really dry,’ says Rural Communities Minister.
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Recent rain brought very temporary reprieve for some water-deprived farmers across the top of the south, but not sufficient to alleviate the pressure of what many say is their driest period since 2019.

“We’ve had minimal amounts of rain for the last few months,” said Tasman sheep and cattle farmer Tim King. 

“It’s considerably worse into the Moutere and Dovedale, where they’ve had less rain for a longer period. They’re extremely, extremely dry, with some of the lowest groundwater levels that have ever been recorded.”

The year of the Pigeon Valley fires, 2019, was the last time King – who’s also mayor of Tasman –  recalls the region being so dry.

“Increasingly we’ve found it very challenging for the supply of water to keep up with the amount the stock are drinking and that’s a situation mirrored pretty extensively,” said King, whose supply comes from a combination of pumping from the creek – which stopped flowing several weeks ago – and wells, which are exceedingly low.

Water restrictions throughout some parts of Tasman have been alleviated by successful releases this month from the new Waimea Dam. 

This assisted many horticulturalists on the plains as well as domestic users, but farmers outside the catchment are still desperately battling to source sufficient water for stock. Any rain that has fallen has been significantly localised.

“It’s the first time since 2019 the Eves Valley Stream’s completely dried up and every stream from here to the far side of the Moutere would pretty much look like that,” King said. 

Tasman mayor and farmer Tim King in a dried-up creek on his Brightwater property in Nelson. His supply comes from a combination of pumping from the creek – which stopped flowing several weeks ago – and wells, which are exceedingly low.

“It’s bloody dry and people are definitely looking to shift stock earlier than they might otherwise have done.”

Rural Communities Minister Mark Patterson visited Marlborough this week, where some parts are experiencing their driest eight-month period since 1930.

“Obviously the region’s under some duress,” he said. “It’s a very serious dry and the hills are that awful grey colour they go when it’s really dry, and you could see a bit of distress in the vineyards on the vines so clearly there’s a significant event.”

Ironically, the same day Patterson was in the region, it rained for the first time in weeks. 

“My understanding is that it was pretty patchy,” he said. 

“Where I was in the Waihopai Valley there was 10mm, just enough to wet the dust. There might have been pockets that had more and maybe towards the coast less. It was a morale booster but nowhere enough to be drought-breaking.”

While conditions are recognised as exceedingly dry, an official medium-scale adverse event has not yet been declared. 

“We have released some money to the Rural Support Trust to dispense advice and run some community gatherings to help farmers with their farm management decisions and broadly to bring the community together,” said Patterson. 

“There can be a tendency to suffer these things in isolation and everyone’s in it together clearly. 

“The problem with droughts and significant dries is they creep – it’s not like something goes through and it’s over. With droughts you don’t know whether it’s going to break next week, next month or in three months, so there’s anxiety that sits around that situation.

“It’s still early into the autumn so there is a chance it could break, and there’s still a window where we can see some feed come away before winter, but we’re certainly taking advice from the Rural Support Trust and the Rural Advisory Group and are open to further discussion.”

Like those on the ground, Patterson said what he hopes for is widespread rain.

“Clearly that window for autumn growth is going to disappear quite quickly,” he said. 

“Experienced farmers are saying it’s the first time they’ve had forage crops fail so it’s clearly a significant event emerging. It’s always hard because different areas will be impacted differently but we do recognise that it’s getting serious.

“A medium-scale adverse event does trigger some tax relief, but we’re talking about public money, so it is a threshold we need to be confident has been reached. It’s not a step we take lightly but also we will certainly be very responsive to the direction we’re getting from the people on the ground. 

“We do recognise that it’s a perfect storm for these farmers, with a climatic event on top of high interest rates and decade-low sheep prices, so we certainly are concerned for their wellbeing and recognise the pressure they’re under.”

In Marlborough’s Waihopai Valley, third-generation farmer Tim Ensor at Tyntesfield Farm has been feeding out his cattle and sheep since early February. 

“We’ve had pretty minimal rain after an alright spring but it just burned off the quickest I’ve ever seen it, starting in late November. Some of the creeks I haven’t seen dry as quick as this.”

He’s heard of farmers near Seddon who have had issues with stock water completely drying up and no further rain of any significance is forecast for the next couple of weeks at least. 

Ensor’s strategy has been to sell store stock and buy in barley for ewes, as well as purchasing additional baleage, and utilising a silage pit that’s been in the ground for a few years. 

He has 40 hectares of lucerne, which is cut and baled every year. 

Home grown baleage is already being fed to cattle, says Colin Gibbs.

“Generally on a normal season that’ll get us through the winter but that’s what we’ve started to feed out, so we bought in some additional local baleage while we could. It should be enough to get us through winter if the rains come in March.”

If they don’t, he hopes it won’t be a repeat of the 2020 drought when significant rain didn’t arrive until May. 

“On average we’d get around 650mm of rain annually but that year it was half that.”   

In February the government contributed $20,000 to the Top of the South Rural Support Trust for farmers and growers in need. 

Fourth-generation Tasman farmer Colin Gibbs is one of the founding members of the local branch of the Top of the South Rural Support Trust and a member of the Dry Weather Task Force, which is made up primarily of Waimea water users, and works to manage water during dry periods.  

“There’re some gulleys that usually hold a little bit of water but they haven’t got much in them now, so that’s all got to be supplement-water fed.   

“Compared with 2019 we are probably drier than that particular year, and we thought we were dry enough then! We are getting to the stage of being water short – it’s something to be reckoned with all the time.”

Homegrown baleage is already being fed to cattle. 

“We’ve got supplementary feed for now but we’ve still got trading stock on hand at the moment, particularly lambs. There’s not a lot of good lamb feed about and the pundits are saying there’s not much likelihood of rain for the next 10 days, although things might change.”

Kerry Irvine, of Federated Farmers’ Nelson Provincial Executive, has sheep and cattle on 700ha southwest of Nelson in the lower Wangapeka Valley. The recent 15mm of rain was swiftly blown off by the wind the following day, he said, and no further rain was forecast. 

Compounding the dry weather, he said, is the fact that winter and spring were also dry. 

“We’re dry but were managing to get through but there’s isolated pockets in Nelson that are really dire, that have lost their house water and all their stock water’s gone. All some people are doing almost all day is cart water for their stock.” 

He knows of some farmers who’ve been feeding out since early January. 

“The stock a lot of us have got on farm now is capital stock ewes and I know there’s been a number where those older capital stock ewes that would traditionally do one more year have gone too.”

Irvine has water restrictions already and is anticipating additional cuts without further rain soon. 

“We’ve got 18ha of irrigation and we’ve been cut by 25%. Further cuts are a concern but you’ve just gotta keep walking forward and play what’s in front of you. If you need to sell store stock, don’t pretend, don’t try and be a hero, just move them.”

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