Farmers take up resilience planning for future droughts

A photo of farmer Daniel Maxwell on his farm near Cheviot.
Daniel Maxwell on his farm near Cheviot. Photo credit: RNZ

By Hugo Cameron of RNZ

While the country may be heading into winter, the impact of another dry summer is fresh on the minds of some farmers. Some hit by drought say there are steps that can be taken to ease the pressure and planning should start now.

Parts of the Far North were once again hit by meteorological drought this summer. While it wasn't as severe as the previous summer's big dry that hit much of the country, it was a set-back for farmers, who were hoping to rebuild feed reserves and make a full recovery.

Chairperson of the Northland Rural Support Trust, Chris Neill, believed drought planning would become even more critical in the future. He encouraged farmers to make a risk management plan that gave them options when tough conditions hit again.

"I think there were some lessons learned last year, in fact there were a lot of lessons learned last year, about being prepared for these dry conditions given the predictions around changes in climate," Neill said.

He said farmers should remember there was help available from adverse events teams - including risk management tools and off-farm catch-ups with others facing tough conditions.

Des Bickers has been a dairy farmer in Tokatoka, south of Dargaville, for over 40 years. He agreed preparation was key for farmers to avoid the pressure of drought, so when the rain did not come they were ready.

"There is a saying in the industry that the difference between a good farmer and an average farmer is two weeks.

"Your water, anything, it's all about looking at it in advance. There's a lot of little bits of management decision you can do to wiggle your way through it," Bickers said.

Bickers said the problem with drought was farmers produced less at a higher cost, meaning it was a financial burden some just had to carry.

North Canterbury hill country farmer Daniel Maxwell set up a support group to help his community through a three-year drought in the region. He said decisions had to be made quickly to avoid the worst effects of drought. Maxwell said he had seen how bad it could get when things were left too late.

"It's huge. You'll be running short on feed and you can see there's no rain coming and suddenly you can't feed everything at once.

"Probably the biggest thing is you've got to start making decisions and set a date and have an action plan at that date. You've just gotta be prepared to make decisions early," Maxwell said.

He said as well as keeping an eye on the bigger picture there was plenty of specific preparation to do on farm. That included growing different feeds with deeper tap roots which handled dry conditions better and following (leaving land empty) much earlier so it absorbs and retains more moisture into dry spells.

Maxwell said when drought hits most farmers cannot feed all their animals, so something needed to be done.

"So, that may be culling stock, feeding stock, or grazing stock off farm and obviously that has a financial cost but the cost of doing nothing is far, far worse," he said.