NZ Farms at Risk from Mega El Nino
New Zealand dairy and dry stock farmers should closely watch the development of this year’s El Nino and to reduce stocking levels if the El Nino strengthens.
In recent years, dairy farmers, in particular, have increased production with palm kernel imported from Indonesia and Malaysia. This is especially the case in the North Island where palm kernel has helped to “flatten the milk curve” by supporting higher stock numbers even as grass growth slows in summer and early autumn.
Palm kernel demand has also spiked when farmers face drought conditions. As this summer’s drought in Canterbury progressed palm kernel supply tightened sharply, despite the low Fonterra payout.
Most farmers are aware that mega El Ninos causes severe droughts in New Zealand and Australia. Few recognise that El Ninos also causes drought in Indonesia and Malaysia. During the 1998 mega El Nino, the drought in Indonesia caused wildfires that consumed over 20,000 square kilometres of rainforest. The smoke was so bad it reduced visibility to less than few metres forcing drivers to use headlights at noon. Ships collided in the Straights of Malacca.
Fonterra’s low payout has resulted in modest stocking reductions. This drop in stocking levels has already placed strain on meat processing capacity as dairy farmers compete for space with dry stock farmers. Nonetheless, New Zealand now farms more than 50% more dairy cows than it did when it last experienced a mega El Nino.
The scale of a mega El Nino drought would raise animal welfare concerns. In Australia, the 1982 El Nino drought caused such a massive drop in sheep prices that as farmers ran out of feed they could not afford to pay the cartage costs to send their animals to the meatworks. Consequently, sheep were slaughtered on farm and buried in massive pits.
The strength of a mega El Nino is enough to reverse the Pacfic’s trade winds. Over the past few years, a huge mass of warm water has accumulated on the western side of the Pacific. It has been held in place by exceptionally strong trade winds. Those winds are beginning to slacken.
We’re overdue for a mega El Nino. The last time we had a mega El Nino, in 1998, New Zealand’s dairy stocking levels were over 30% lower and we weren’t dependent on imported feed. Nouveau Eco CEO Belinda Storey
If current stocking levels are in place when the next mega El Nino hits, animals on New Zealand farms will go hungry and farmers with already fragile balance sheets will be exceptionally vulnerable.