NEW ZEALAND— Farmer welfare is a serious concern in Southland after the driest start to a year on record, the Southland Rural Support Trust says.

No captionPhoto: RNZ / Liz Garton

Meaningful rain has finally fallen in the south this week, but it has come too late to bring any relief to the feed shortage confronting the region’s farmers.

Southland farmers say they expect the economic fallout of the drought to linger into next year.

Southland Rural Support Trust chair Cathie Cotter said everything had landed on the region’s farmers at once with the Omicron wave at its peak in the south.

“A whole lot of things have just increased the pressure on our rural sector and we are really concerned about how our farmers will get through,” she said.

“They’re notorious for putting their animal welfare in front of their own health, so we encourage our farmers to get help if they need it. Pick up the phone and ring Rural Support or a friend or a neighbour or just connect with someone who might have gone through this before who’s got some knowledge they can impart.

“But we’re certainly thinking about of them, we’re certainly trying to put systems in place to support the rural sector.”

The rain had brought some relief, particularly in beginning the replenishment of aquifers and residential water supplies.

Environment Southland’s irrigation ban was now also lifted across the region.

Federated Farmers Southland Meat and Wool Chair Dean Rabbidge said the pain caused by the driest start to a year on record would likely linger until early next year.

“Things have greened up a lot, there’s been a lot of pasture growth but it still doesn’t hide the fact that we’re in a huge feed deficit,” he said.

“Just speaking for ourselves we’ve got to grow 61 kilos of dry matter per hectare per day by the first of May just to get back to where we normally are and those growth rates we don’t even achieve in the peak of summer in ideal growing conditions. So with shorter days and colder growing conditions we’re falling further behind all the time.”

The government this week announced an additional 500 border exemptions for meat processors and 500 extra workers through the dairy worker immigration scheme.

But Rabbidge said like the rain, it was too little, too late for Southland’s rural sector.

“That’s far too late. Industry bodies were calling for that in December because we could see this happening then and for it to come in at the end of the season is good for next year hopefully, but it’s not even a token gesture – it’s far too late. Then when you see they’ve automatically given 280 exemptions to people to come in and operate ski lifts, it’s pretty insulting really. We can train Kiwis to do that job now, it’s pretty frustrating to say the least.”

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor visited Southland farms, including Dean Rabbidge’s property, last week.

Rabbidge said it gave him a chance to illustrate the situation in the south.

“We probably couldn’t tell him anything he doesn’t know and I think Damien does have agriculture at the best of heart in New Zealand but he’s hamstrung by powers further up the ranks then him unfortunately.”

He hoped they would be able to turn the corner by early next year, but that seemed a long way off with factors like interest rates, commodity prices and the winter weather out of farmers’ control.

“I think all going to plan if we’re savvy and clever, we might start to get back on track by January or February next year. It’s going to take a full year to get back on board but with rising input costs it’s going to be pretty hard to catch up. We just hope commodity prices remain at the level they’re at, if not better going forward.”

NIWA meteorologist Chris Brandolino said there might be some good news on that front with the rest of the month bringing some rain and patches of warmer than usual weather.

Though it would take time to break the back of the meteorological drought in the south, he said.

“Unfortunately it’s one of those things that just takes time and the effects of drought can persist even when steadier rain has returned. So the message there is we’re going to have to be patient.”