Thursday, December 7, 2023

Waikato farmers battle the bog as incessant rain continues

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Strong westerlies and patches of sunshine in early July have helped dry out some places, but further rain forecast for next week will see the recovery go backwards.
Matthew Zonderop with his mob of heifers in one of the drier paddocks at his Te Poi farm.
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Ever day is one day closer to spring, Waikato dairy farmer Matthew Zonderop keeps telling himself as he looks out at his waterlogged pastures.

Constant rain over the past month has turned much of his 140ha farm near Te Poi into a waterlogged bog. 

Zonderop, who chairs Waikato Federated Farmers’ dairy section, believes his situation is indicative of what is happening on many farms across the region.

Many of his paddocks appear lush and green, but this is deceptive: the saturated peat soils beneath are one downpour away from surface flooding, spilling over onto the already filled drains on the edge.

If he allowed his cows onto this grass, he fears the 600-plus kilogram animals – most of which are yet to calve – would quickly turn the paddock into mud. 

He estimates around 30ha of paddocks on the farm are too wet for the cows to graze.

“It will eventually go back into the system, but we have to preserve it because if the cows go into it, they’ll sink up to their brisket.”

The water standing in large patches of water in some of the other paddocks has been there since May because it has not had a chance to drain into the soil.

“It’s got nowhere to go.”

Strong westerlies and patches of sunshine in early July have helped dry out some places, giving him and his herd of 400 cows a welcome reprieve – and the grass a chance to breathe. 

But further rain forecast for next week will see the recovery go backwards. The water table is at paddock-level and 2-3mm of rain is enough to bring back more surface flooding, Zonderop said.

The paddocks where the cows have grazed, while significantly pugged, are showing some signs of recovery after the rare spell of fine weather in Waikato this week.

It will mean re-grassing decisions closer to spring, but against a background of a stagnant milk price and rising costs – including the high cost of grass seed and factoring in its value if the summer turns dry.

In a normal season, some of his paddocks would be onto their second or third grazing but he has shut them up to conserve them for spring.

In the meantime, the wet has made pasture and feed management critical and obliged him to be as conservative as possible and make full use of his supplementary feed.

Zonderop runs the herd as three mobs and because he has no feedpad or similar infrastructure, he alternates the mobs on either the yards, drier paddocks or “sacrifice” paddocks that were planned to be sown into summer feed crops in spring.

“We don’t have a choice.

“If we don’t, we’ll end up with a worse problem than we started with.”

Over on the Hauraki Plains, dairy farmer Julie Pirie’s farm had started calving and while areas are wet, their operation has come through the rain relatively unscathed. This was in part due to using their support block to graze their heifers.

But it has made work harder, Pirie said.

Everyone has to don their wet weather clothing for longer and they need to be more selective about which paddocks to use for grazing and keep an eye on the herd for possible health issues, she said.

“I know there has been some farmers struggling with the wet – having to take cows off pastures and onto pads or cowshed yards to stop them doing damage. That’s really hard and it adds a lot of extra pressure to the day for people.”

Pirie is conscious how morale-sapping it can be for her staff in such conditions and said people management is critical.

The district’s drainage schemes are also working really well and have helped keep much of the rain from ponding on paddocks, Pirie said.

“We have that advantage compared to other farms.”

Pirie said she remains an optimist.

“You think how you are going to get through and then in July, the sun comes out and you have a super spring. You hope it goes that way.”

Back in Te Poi, Zonderop said while the herd was in good condition coming into winter, the constant wet is putting an enormous amount of stress on them at a time when the animals are already stressed as they prepare to calve.

“They’re just tired,” he said.

“They can lose a lot of weight in these situations because they are churning up all of their stored fat to keep warm in the rain and they just burn it.

He would not be surprised if it affected spring production across the region, particularly those who took advantage of the warm autumn weather in May and subsequent pasture growth by extending their lactations for last season.

It was a gamble that meant many of those pastures would still be recovering during the wet and they would have “robbed Peter to pay Paul”, he said.

He is hoping that good spring production will help him pay back the financial cost of this winter.

“But that’s dairy farming.”

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