An empty dam on a Wellsford farm.
The earth has opened up in Wellsford.
Cracks so big, you could lose a dog down them. Photo, Teresa Woolley of Topuni.
Losing sheep in dried up dams has been a common occurrence this year. Photo, Brett Wilson of Kaiwaka.
The Baldrock Dam near Kaiwaka is still low.
Despite recent rain, north Rodney and Kaipara are in the grip of the worst drought seen in modern times.
Although the district’s urban residents have seen their grass turn green and might be forgiven for thinking the worst is over, the upper North Island has so far received only a third of its usual rainfall this year.
Successive dry years have meant that soil moisture is well below average and underground aquifers and bores have dried up. The upshot is that grass has failed to grow.
Stephen Dill’s family has been farming the Kaipara Hills for five generations and has been keeping records for all of that time.
Stephen says this has been the driest 12-month period since 1946.
The Dill farm needs to have grass 7cm tall by June 1, but presently it’s sitting at 4cm.
“That’s the equivalent of going into the dry season with your rain tank half empty. It’s the lowest pasture cover I’ve seen in my time farming,” he says.
Stephen has been trucking water from a deep bore at the base of the hills up to his farm but will soon have to buy commercially delivered water.
“It’s the second year in a row with a deficit of rain and so the aquifers haven’t recharged.”
Despite the adverse conditions, Rodney and Kaipara farmers are battling on.
Tomarata dairy farmer Murray Fell dried off his cows early and slowed his pasture rotation in anticipation of the extended drought.
As silage and hay became increasingly scarce and difficult to buy, Murray began stocking hay in his barn and supplementing his feed with palm kernel.
“It’s better to have a barn full of hay than money in the bank,” he says.
These measures have meant that his milk production is down 10 per cent, but Murray is in a relatively good place, heading into the dry winter.
Matakana farmer Keith Trotter says his milk production could be down by up to 20 per cent and his pasture cover is only at 1400kg/ha, when he would normally be hoping for 2500kg/ha.
“You just have to be prepared to farm your way through it and be prepared to buy more feed,” he says.
Shane Hood has had a tough run on his finishing farm in Glorit thanks to the drought and Covid-19 drastically reducing demand for exports.
He bought 41 young Friesian bulls for $1050 a head during spring, when cattle prices were at historic highs.
The animals put on 60kgs of weight, yet Shane has had to sell them at a loss for $920 a head.
“That’s farming – you take the good with the bad,” he says.
“We budgeted for worst case scenarios, and we are very lucky that we don’t have a mortgage, but people with debt will be really struggling.”
This month, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced $500,000 in relief for drought stricken farmers in the Hawkes Bay and later announced a further $500,000 to be shared between Northland and Waikato.
The funds are to be distributed via local district authorities at their discretion.
However, north Rodney farmers have no way to access the funds because they reside below an arbitrary line dividing the Auckland and Northland regions.
This is despite meteorologists confirming what Rodney farmers already know – the region has been among the hardest hit.
NIWA meteorologist Ben Noll says it is the most extreme drought event for Auckland in modern times.
Auckland has been particularly dry, with more than 77 consecutive days spent in severe drought – more than any other region, including Hawkes Bay and Northland.
Mr Noll says that soil moisture is not likely to significantly improve until rains arrive in late winter or spring. (See season outlook story).
But Rodney farmers that Mahurangi Matters spoke to believe it’s up to them to find farming solutions to get through the winter and they’re not expecting the Government to take notice.
One said that waiting for the Government to intervene would be wishful thinking.