Milking the cows used to be a job that could be done by one of the farm hands – but now it’s north Waikato farmer Karen West who is up at 4.30am every day, battling the unwelcome changes that the 2013 drought has brought to the land.
Karen and her husband Peter (both 48) have been farming in Kaihere for the past 28 years. They have faced four droughts – all since 2008. When they were forced to lay off the farm worker who was milking the cows two years ago, Karen took over the job to help keep costs down.
There’s hardly been any rain since mid-January, when Karen began observing the telltale signs of another drought. The bores have run dry, the cows are getting hungrier and milk production has plummeted.
“The paddocks are browning off more, there are more cracks in the ground and the cows are losing weight, and they’re panting – it’s just been so hot for them,” Karen says. Dairy farming is considered crucial to the economy and the drought is already taking its toll in lost export earnings.
“Our milk production will be well down by the end of the season,” says Peter. But Karen and Peter are some of the lucky ones. They still have water from a local creek and their cows can be milked twice a day – unlike some farms where milking has dropped to once a day or cows have gone dry.
There’s also still green grass for the cows to eat, but they have to supplement this with extra feed at a cost of $500 a day. Other farms, which have completely run out of grass, are forking out $2000 a day to feed their cattle.
“Another week or so and we could be running into trouble ourselves,” Peter warns. The situation has become all too familiar to the couple –childhood sweethearts, who got together when they were 14 and are about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
“We’ve experienced droughts more often than a lot of greater Waikato and south Waikato, so we’re more prepared. It’s more widespread this year. “After three years of drought, we dropped our cow numbers by 80 because we were too highly stocked for the dry summers. Now our cows are in better condition because they’re better fed.”
The first drought, which struck in 2008, was particularly serious because their farm was unprepared. Now, they are in a better position to weather the conditions. “After three years of drought, we knew we had to make some major cost-cutting changes and dropped a full-time staff member – I also had to go back to work. I have always worked on the farm and didn’t want to work in an office, so I decided to do the milking,” Karen explains.
The government does offer rural assistance payments for drought-stricken farmers, but only a small number are likely to qualify because they need to be in overdraft and going deeper into debt. “New Zealanders have this perception that farmers get lots of help from the government, when in fact things have to be pretty grim for this to occur,” Karen points out.
Although more rain would be welcome, Karen and Peter are aware that worrying won’t help. “We don’t stress about it,” says Karen. “We have no control over this. We can’t control the weather. The only thing we can do is plan ahead and regularly monitor feed and bank balances. We just have to talking to family, friends and people in the industry. We can’t let it get us down.”
Their land received 15 millimetres of rainfall last week, but it requires a lot more. “It was great to see, but we still need three times as much to grow the right pasture grass,” Peter explains.“For us, we can still see some green and that means there’s some hope.”
How the drought effects you
- Economists predict that the price of milk is likely to increase up to 20%, but the cost of lamb and beef is likely to fall.
- Finance Minister Bill English said the drought could cost the nation’s economy up to $2 billion.
- The government has officially declared New Zealand’s most widespread drought in at least 30 years. Parts of the North Island are drier than they’ve been in 70 years.