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'It was getting pretty dry' - Otago farmers call for drought declaration

Farmers in Otago's Clutha district are struggling with ongoing dry conditions, prompting calls for a drought.

Last month was the second hottest March since records began and Balclutha had less than 30% of its usual rainfall for the month - and some areas of the district are doing it even harder.

It has been getting so bad, local MP Hamish Walker yesterday called on Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor to declare a drought.

Nigel Homer, who farms at Waitahuna - about 50km drive from Balclutha - said it was among the driest seasons he had seen in almost two decades farming in the area.

"It was getting pretty dry," he said.

"We've only had the odd day when we might get four mil[limetres] or something, but that's few and far between.

"It's just toying with the cusp of winter and a short enough time to get any feed bank growing behind you. We have had seasons like it - you just never know when they're going to come."

He and others had already started utilising supplementary feed which would normally be reserved for winter.

"We've been feeding out a bit of baleage and a few nuts just to flush the ewes a bit, but there probably are other farmers who are in a slightly worse situation than us. Everybody is looking for a bit of feed and they probably have been for the last three or four weeks."

The real difficulty was many farmers were in the process of flushing their ewes for tupping - getting weight on them before breeding.

That meant the dry conditions could have ramifications for next season.

However, Federated Farmers Otago president Simon Davies - who farms at Toko Mouth in the east of the district - said parts of the district were in drought, official declaration or not.

"While technically we may not be in a drought, in reality we are in terms of ground conditions and certainly in very localised areas we are in a far worse predicament than we were last year when they did declare a drought," he said.

"That's mainly because it's so much later [in the season]."

Rainfall in recent days had alleviated the situation somewhat, but all eyes are on the sky and the mercury.

"We've had a bit of moisture in the last three days - it's not enough but it's certainly a good start," he said. "From my personal experience it's as bad as I've ever seen.

"The biggest concern is actually the time of the year. If we were to get three weeks of lovely weather with more moisture then a lot of us would be fine. But if it was to get cold now and stay cold that's where people are really going to get into difficulties."

Adding to their difficulties was how poorly winter crops had grown.

"We had a difficult time in the spring trying to get them in the ground and then they were very, very slow germinating and getting going due to ground conditions, and then we've had a very dry period so they just don't have the volume.

"To give you an idea, my kale crop typically at this time of the year I'd be looking at five to seven tonnes and I think at the moment it's about two."

Clutha District mayor Bryan Cadogan supported Mr Walker's call for a drought to be declared.

"I think it makes sense.

"This is the time that will challenge you the most of any time of the year, so it's a good idea to gather the resources, to gather the collective strength and see what can be done because it's no use waiting until all the options have run out."

In a written statement, Mr O'Connor said the government was aware of the situation in the district and had been actively monitoring it for some time.

He said he had been told support from local industry was meeting farmers' needs at this stage.

"At the end of the day, what is going to alleviate the situation is rain.

"There has been some good rain over the last week, more is needed, and I will continue to monitor the situation so we're ready to step in if required."

By Tim Brown

RNZ.co.nz