Drought-stricken farmers still desperate for rain

Much more rain is needed to restore soil moisture levels.
Much more rain is needed to restore soil moisture levels. Photo credit: RNZ / Dom Thomas

By Robin Martin of RNZ

Farmers in parched regions of the country say the rain that has fallen over the past 24 hours is a small reprieve - but it's no drought breaker.

A front brought just 8-15mm of rain to Northland, Auckland, Hawke's Bay and North Canterbury, while in contrast Wellington and Taranaki got more than 40mm.

John Blackwell farms sheep and beef cattle on about 550ha south of Dargaville in Northland.

He said the weekend's rain had left him feeling a little demoralised.

"We got 8mm so that's not really much use. We haven't had any significant rain events this year. I think we got 4mm in January and 10 in February.

"So probably doesn't do our morale any good when you've got a rain event coming across and to only get 8mm. We just wonder if it will ever rain again."

Blackwell said the north was the driest it had been in living memory and he was worried about what the winter held.

"The shortest day is only a few weeks away. We had a frost a few days ago. It's 19 degrees today so things will happen and grass will grow, but it's very hard facing winter with all your winter feed fed out and your farms been virtually eaten right out."

He said some farmers may be forced to sell up if things did not improve.

Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor today announced $500,000 relief funding for drought-stricken farmers in north Waikato and Northland.

The funding would be shared between the two regions and will be given to local mayoral drought relief funds to hand out for the purchase and delivery of feed supplies.

Federated Farmers North Canterbury president Cameron Henderson was trying to look on the bright side.

"We do have the wet stuff falling from the sky thankfully, so any rain is welcome rain given the conditions this year, but it's certainly not a drought breaker."

Henderson said feed supply was the pressing problem.

"Generally, most farmers have relied on a bit of autumn to green things up and grow a bit of winter feed, but it just hasn't happened this year.

"So, really, we're seeing pasture levels pretty low and a lot of it is still looking pretty brown to be honest, and winter feed crops are looking very poor too. So, it's just a feed supply issue that we are facing at the moment."

Henderson was also worried about the temperature dropping.

"We're quite welcoming of rain so long as we end up with quite warm conditions so that the pasture and crops can use it.

"What we don't need is for it to turn cold and if we get a lot of rain at the same time we really get a lot of mud rather than growth. Rain without the temperatures to boost growth actually makes things worse."

Four generations of Hadley Boyle's family have worked his Central Hawkes Bay property.

He said the current drought was the worst in a century.

"This rain is a little blessing, but yeah it is definitely going to take a lot more of a follow up and stay warm for a bit longer to make any real difference.

"We just wouldn't expect years like this. The last year that had as low a rainfall as this would have been 1914."

Boyle said Sunday night's rain was the most the farm had seen in more than six months.

Much more rain was needed to restore soil moisture levels, Niwa principal scientist forecasting Chris Brandolino said.

"So, 10, 15, 20mls of rain, sure that's useful, but you need that to happen over many days over many months so not just once or twice a month, you know.

"You'll need seven, nine even 20 times a month for multiple months to really offset and bring things back to near normal."

Brandolino said the forecast for the next two weeks was for unsettled weather which could mean there was a chance for more rain, the expectation over the next two months was for normal to below normal rainfall.