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Action needed now to minimise drought losses

Media Release

20 January 2015

- for immediate release

Action needed now to minimise drought losses

Farmers need to act now if they are to cope with the effects of a predicted drought in Canterbury, Lincoln University experts say.

But they also need to be thinking long-term with more dry-spells looking likely.

Chris Logan, Animal Programmes Manager at Lincoln University, says it seems the region may be in for a hard drought of a kind which has not been seen for some decades.

‘’If they don’t have other contingencies in place, then farmers really need to be reducing stock numbers to their winter stocking rate as fast as they can. That probably means taking a lower price than they would have liked but at this point, there is not much option. ‘’

The alternative is that you will have lower lambing percentages next year which means this year’s problems simply compound next year, he says.

“Getting space in the works is going to be an issue. If you have a good relationship with your meat company, that is going to help. If you’ve shopped around over the last few years and have not built up that relationship, then you will probably need extra feed just to hold your animals until you can get them away. So look to get feed now if you can.”

Sourcing off-farm grazing is another option, but it comes at a cost, not only in terms of grazing and transport charges per head but increased animal health risks when grazed-off animals return, as well as reduced management and nutritional control, Mr Logan says.

‘’Whichever way you look at it, we are in a loss minimisation situation now.’’

Professor Tony Bywater, of the Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says long-term planning is needed.

“The pundits tell us that climate change is likely to increase the frequency of dry periods in the future so farmers really need to be thinking about how their system is set up to cope with variability in weather patterns.’’

He says the start of a drought is not the best time to start thinking about how to cope with a dry spell.

“By the time we realise we are in a drought, it’s usually too late to do anything about it without it costing an arm and a leg,’’ Professor Bywater says.

He says Canterbury farmers need to have flexibility built into their farming systems and know their ‘trigger points’.

“Know what your policies are when it gets dry, and when it’s a good year, and then monitor the situation every week and react when you have to,’’ Professor Bywater says.

He says you have to ask yourself how risk averse you are.

“If you don’t like risk, react sooner when it’s getting dry, maybe when soil moisture reaches 15 percent by volume – even though at that level, pastures will still be growing. If you can take a bit more risk, wait until it reaches 10 percent but that’s pretty much on the edge. Whatever your trigger is, when you reach it, act. Don’t wait.’’

“Our research shows us that if farmers react to their moisture triggers instead of hanging on in the hopes of rain, they will reduce the variability of performance year to year and maintain higher profits over all — quite significantly.’’

He says this depends on having the ability to react, however.

“You either have to have stock you can get off the property quickly or you have to have feed to feed them, there’s only two choices. Older cattle are about the most flexible stock you can have so we certainly recommend a reasonable proportion of stock units in older cattle.’’

Even when the price is not what it is this year, cattle can help control pastures and the flexibility they provide will pay dividends, he says.

‘’You can sell them if you have to, or not if you don’t.’’

What farmers need to be looking at are systems which perform at a high level and have the flexibility to adjust to a dry year without a significant loss in profit — ‘’systems which are ‘resilient’ if you like’’.

He says one of the best ways of handling summer dry periods is to grow lambs quickly so that many, or most of them, are gone before the risk of dry weather gets too high.

‘’That means high quality feed, which is what you need for high performance anyway. One way of improving feed quality is to increase your stocking rate so that you can control pastures better and keep them in an actively growing state. It also gives you options in good years. But that of course increases the risk when it gets dry. So you have to have the ability to react when you need to.”

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