Southern drought takes toll

Steve James Contracting making balage at Mount Hamilton station near Mossburn. PHOTO: Shelley Walsh

Southland farmers are counting the cost of this season's drought as supplementary feed prices skyrocket and an unprecedented number of lambs leave the region, while in Fiordland the death of 70 cows has been linked to dehydration.

Landcorp has been investigating the death of around 70 cows on its Eweburn Station in January, with both the Ministry for Primary Industries and local veterinarians also involved.

Eweburn Station is a five-staff deer, sheep and cattle farm located outside Te Anau.

Landcorp head of communications Simon King said the station staff became aware the cows were suffering dehydration due to scarcity of water and the extreme drought conditions. They took immediate steps to move the cows to drinking water but they drank excessively and a condition known as "salt poisoning" occurred.

"Salt poisoning is a result of water moving from the blood into the brain, causing it to swell to an abnormal size. The increase in pressure in the cranium causes severe brain damage and death of the animals," he said.

A ministry spokesperson said it was satisfied the incident was an "extremely unfortunate accident", and no further action by MPI was required. 

Mr King said staff felt "gutted" by what happened, and Landcorp was working with them "to ensure they have the support they need as they work through the events on Eweburn". Landcorp would make sure they learned from this tragic event and would review its procedures accordingly, he said.

"We are determined that an event such as this will not occur again in any of our 125 farms."

As farmers across the south grapple with the ongoing dry conditions, many have been 
forced to offload stock and the price of baleage has risen by more than 50%.

Federated Farmers Southland president Allan Baird said last year dry standing grass was between 18 and 20 cents per kilogram. This year that price had gone up to around 30 cents. Mr Baird said the demand had been pushed up mainly by dairy farmers under pressure to keep cows milking.

Silver Fern Farms stock agent Daryl Whipps said he had seen a noticeable hike in baleage prices.

"A month ago you could probably get it for $85 a bale, now it's up to probably $100 plus."

Last year baleage sold for around $60 to $70 a bale.

Added to that was the transport cost of around $20-30 a bale to be brought specifically to the 
Te Anau basin. 

Baleage is in high demand in light of this summer's ongoing drought.

Mr Whipps said much of his work as an agent had diminished as there was a mass exodus of store stock out of the region, which hadn't been seen in years. He said he was down around 50% of his normal tallies selling fat stock because it had to go elsewhere as store stock to be further fattened. He knew a lot of farmers who had gone through their winter feed already and were having to buy more. Fortunately many of his clients had purchased baleage earlier in the season when it was cheaper and more available.

"The amount of trucks with baleage coming into Te Anau, it's incredible."

Alliance Group general manager of livestock and shareholder services Heather Stacy said lamb processing volumes leading up to Christmas were actually very strong, but concern about the increasingly dry conditions ramped up after Christmas. 

It was estimated that close to 250,000 lambs left the region in one month alone.

"That's when we saw store lamb numbers move out of the Southland region at volumes that really have been unprecedented. That was really farmers trying to conserve the feed they had and quit some of the lambs that they might not otherwise have quitted this early in the season."

However, good rain a couple of weeks ago had restored farmer confidence, and moving volumes had declined into normal patterns for the season. 

One silver lining was that an earlier Easter season meant the UK and European market meant demand for chilled lamb came earlier. 

"In actual fact, there's been a good alignment actually of customer demand and supply of lamb. We've actually been able to process those animals at good prices."

Northern Southland Transport branch manager Aaron Webb said they had brought around 2500 bales of supplementary feed into the Te Anau area over the past three weeks alone. In addition, they were very busy transporting stock out of town, something which usually happened later in the year.

Sheep and dairy farmer Rob Kempthorne of Mavora Farms said dry conditions in October and November had limited the establishment of young grass and crops, as well as baleage and silage yields.

"You care about how other people are going, and all you want is that everybody gets 40mm."

"On our farm, all of our baleage and silage yields that we could get prior to Christmas were half what they normally are," he said.

"This is why this has been more significant than most other things is because it started so early, at a critical time of the year where those aspects of crops and grass and silage were being limited."

The effects of the drought had rolled on since then, and winter preparations — such as feed preservation — had started now. He said their stock, especially the sheep, were arguably the lightest he had ever had them. Now he felt his farm was on a cusp with how to proceed into autumn.

If their farm got a inch or two of rain in the next week, there was hope there could be something to salvage and move forward.

Mr Kempthorne said he and his neighbours had kept in regular contact to check in on each other during the tough times. 

"You care about how other people are going, and all you want is that everybody gets 40mm."

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