Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne meat plants have reopened after varying periods out of action following cyclone damage, but access remains a major problem.
AFFCO Wairoa was the first facility to get back into action, two weeks after its closure, and was initially able to provide the town with water from its own bore. Its status as the town’s biggest employer meant it was important to reopen as quickly as possible, and the mayor was willing to repay the compliment, allowing access to the town’s water supply as soon as it was operational.
The plant is now running two beef shifts five days a week, but lamb is slower, with two shifts for four days at present. AFFCO has also been killing lamb and mutton for Silver Fern Farms to avoid excessive transport time.
Ovation’s Gisborne plant wasn’t so fortunate, but after three weeks was able to run one shift with a limited water allowance, restricting it to half its normal throughput.
The main difficulty for both plants is accessing livestock, with many farmers unable to get either store or prime stock off their farms. Ovation’s procurement manager, Hylton Bayliss, said the growth window on higher-altitude farms is narrowing and this will become a major issue if it continues. He is concerned about the number of paddocks that are no longer usable and fears the impact will be a reduction of ewe numbers, which will be felt for several years.
There is only one road out of the region open at present, via Matawai and the Waioeka Gorge. This involves a two-stage, 15-hour journey via Taupō, where drivers change over to comply with mandatory limits. This will continue until the Wairoa-Napier highway is reopened.
This unavoidable situation is a logistical challenge that causes stress to the stock, as well as costing a lot more than normal. The other major road closure was the Napier-Taupō highway. This has now reopened during daylight hours, but it is fragile and remains subject to closure if conditions dictate. Coastal shipping has been introduced between Gisborne and Napier so produce can be transported faster.
AFFCO’s livestock manager, Tom Young, is more optimistic about the future outlook for livestock numbers once farms recover. He notes the difficulty of access across the whole Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne regions, although stock has started to come out slowly, affecting lambs more than beef. Where trucks can’t get onto more remote properties, the solution, when possible, is to drove the cattle or lambs to the end of the accessible road.
Grant Bunting, ANZCO’s GM Supply, thinks it will take time for a clear pattern of processing requirements to become clear, but once infrastructure has been largely restored, there will be a bow wave. This may result in a bottleneck with western North Island farmers hitting peak at the same time.
Silver Fern Farms’ Pacific plant was flooded and heavily affected by silt. All the inventory had to be moved to an off-site cold store while the cold chain rooms were defrosted and cleaned. Although all the inventory maintained its temperature and hygiene standards, there was 7cm of ice and silt on the floor that had to be prised off with a jackhammer before the pallets could be moved. This plant is where SFF’s market-led beef programmes – 100% Angus, 100% Prime, Reserve EQ and Angus – are normally processed, but stock for these programmes were processed at Te Aroha and Hawera during the closure. The 100% Lamb Programme was able to be processed at Takapau as usual, but in some cases lambs may have fallen out of specification owing to delays from road closures.
Rissington is an example of a badly affected community with lack of road access until the old bridge can be replaced with a class 1 bridge, which will enable heavy trucks and cars to resume for livestock movements and supplies. This is scheduled to be completed by the end of this month.
Jeremy Absolom said the recent spell of mostly fine weather has helped to restore morale, but this can only last so long without proper access, which will enable more self-help and an increase in business activity. At present access in and out, when dry, is only by 4×4.
As well as getting plants operating again, the Meat Industry Association reports that meat companies have all stepped up to provide support for regional communities. The Greenlea Foundation Trust has made a $1 million donation to the East Coast Rural Support Trust to help clean-up and recovery operations, and the Greenlea rescue helicopter has been transporting people in need of urgent medical care to nearby hospitals and care facilities. In addition, a further $1m has been earmarked for ongoing support for affected communities.
Alliance Group has donated $200,000 to the East Coast Rural Support Trust and launched a shareholder-supplier stock-donation programme for farmers to donate lamb, sheep, cattle or deer, with the proceeds going to the trust. Meanwhile, AFFCO has donated $100,000 to the Wairoa Mayoral Relief Fund, distributed lamb to the community and provided bore water, while letting the army use the plant site to fly in emergency provisions, stored in AFFCO’s dry stores and chillers, for distribution by the army and the council.
Silver Fern Farms has provided over 10t of product to those in need, including maraes, mosques, churches, fire stations, shelters for displaced persons, and isolated communities. The company is also co-ordinating helicopter drops to the most isolated areas of Rissington, Pātoka and Tūtira, helping get much-needed equipment and services to those communities. Unaffected Silver Fern Farms farmers are also donating animals to Meat the Need and cash contributions to the Rural Support Trust when they have animals processed.
This latest climate disaster has emphasised the importance of sheep and beef farmers being loyal to their processor of choice, in return for which they can expect to receive loyalty and commitment in return. Never has the sector’s interdependence been so graphically illustrated.