I hope none of the farmers who are working hard in the wake of the snow, wind and rain which caused so much damage in Southland and South Otago read your column yesterday.
The last thing you need when you’ve had the heartbreaking task of dealing with hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of dead and dying lambs and you’re also losing ewes is to read:
Freezing temperatures and snowfalls are not a new event, yet year after year the timing of the birth of the lambs coincides with treacherous weather, followed by the sickening sight of the corpses of newborn animals being thrown on to the backs of trucks.
You are right that freezing temperatures and snowfalls aren’t new events. But they’re not predictable either. They don’t happen in the same places at the same time year after year and there is no way of knowing in autumn, when you put the rams out, what weather will happen when in spring.
Most Southland farms have good shelter belts. When it started snowing the ewes moved under the trees but the snow kept coming, then it rained and the ground they were on turned to bog.
We were lambing when the snow struck. The farm got some snow but not enough to do much damage. Had it been a few kilometres further south and east we too would have suffered huge losses. That we didn’t was simply due to good fortune.
What you saw on television wasn’t the result of poor management, it was the result of bad luck caused by an unusually late and severe snow storm followed by rain and wind.
If you don’t believe me, you might believe Bob Kerridge of the SPCA who wrote:
. . .we need to be careful about criticism when the catastrophe that’s unfolded in Southland and South Otago is at such an extreme level
After all, this was the worst series of storms in at least a generation, with wind chills of minus 10C and more than 100mm of rain, as well as snow drifts such as have not been experienced since the early 1970s. In these circumstances, no amount of preparation could have prevented such huge livestock losses, of a scale which no farmer would wish for in their lifetime.
Moreover, as Federated Farmers has reminded us, many farmers had actually pushed lambing back from late winter into early spring in order to reduce the level of climatic risk, only to experience far worse weather and vastly more difficult conditions at this later point in time.
Lambing isn’t timed for farmers’ convenience. It is governed by the ewes’ oestrus (heat) and the length of that is influenced by weather, nutrition and age.
Decreasing day length stimulates the ewe’s natural breeding season, with peak oestrus activity from March to May. The average gestation period for sheep is 147 days. If they’re at peak oestrus in autumn they will lamb in spring.
Another factor which governs the timing of lambing is grass growth. Farms require plenty of feed to flush ewes before tupping, to feed them during and after lambing and to feed the lambs after weaning. Spring lambing fits the feed cycle.
You think it’s sickening watching dead lambs on TV, Rosemary? It feels even worse on the farm when you’re out in the paddocks in the cold and wet working with your stock.
You seem to think farmers are heartless. They’re not and it is not just physically but emotionally difficult dealing with what was a once in a generation event. Good farmers care about and for their stock and it takes great strength to cope with the magnitude of losses many have suffered.
Federated Farmers, Rural Women and Rural Support trusts have been calling on every farm in the affected areas, delivering food parcels and checking that everyone is coping. Most are, given the circumstances, but some are struggling and the views you expressed, which have been voiced on talkback and in letters to editors too, do absolutely nothing to help.
Even if you don’t believe that farmers care about their stock, can’t you understand that they’d do everything they could to minimise losses because dead stock don’t earn money?
Now that the crisis of the storm and its aftermath have passed, farmers are adding up their losses in financial terms. They will be substantial and there will be a flow on into rural communities with less work for shearers, contractors, freezing workers . . .
You saw a few moments of horror on TV. Farmers are still dealing with it and they and the wider rural community will be coping with the aftermath long after you’ve tuned to something else.