CARTERTON, New Zealand Dairy farmer John Rose has sent more than 100 of his cows to the slaughterhouse during recent weeks as a severe drought browned pastures in New Zealands normally verdant North Island.
He had to thin his herd so the remaining 550 cows have enough to eat, and hes supplementing their diet with ground palm kernel as the grass in his fields withers.
We try and make sure theyve got water and shade during the day and do the best we can for them, he said. Its very hard to remember when the last rainfall was.
The drought is costing farmers millions of dollars each day and is beginning to take a toll on New Zealands economy. Last week, the government officially declared its most widespread drought in at least 30 years.
Parts of the North Island are drier than theyve been in 70 years, and some scientists say the unusual weather could be a harbinger of climate change. There has been little significant rainfall in the northern and eastern parts of the country since October.
Still, some are finding the dry, sun-soaked days a boon. Vintners call the conditions perfect. And city dwellers are reveling in eating lunch outdoors or spending evenings at the beach in a Southern Hemisphere summer that never seems to end.
Farmers estimate the drought has so far cost them about 1 billion New Zealand dollars ($820 million) in lost export earnings with the damage rising daily as they reduce their herds, which in turn reduces milk production.
Farming, and dairy cows in particular, drives the economy in the island nation of 4.5 million, and the drought is expected to shave about a percentage point off economic growth.
New Zealands last significant drought was five years ago and also cost farmers billions of dollars.
Bruce Wills, president of farming association Federated Farmers, said North Island slaughterhouses are processing about 40 percent more cows and sheep this year as farmers reduce their herds. The increased numbers and lighter weight of the animals has resulted in plummeting prices, he said.
North Island farmers are also sending stock to the South Island, which hasnt been so affected. Wills said farmers have sent 1.5 million lambs and other stock on ferries to the South Island to graze or be slaughtered there.
One of the challenges with a drought is that the impact can go on for a number of years, he said. Well have a lower lambing percentage next year because there hasnt been enough feed this year, he said of the impact on animal fertility.
The official government designation of a drought provides farmers some financial relief through increased government funding of rural groups and tax breaks. Farmers facing serious financial hardship will also be eligible to apply for temporary unemployment benefits.
Its a very serious problem, said lawmaker David Shearer. Its obviously affecting farmers, but the other part is, its also going to flow through to our rural communities the retail shops and the businesses.
Bill English, the countrys finance minister, said that despite the economic difficulties caused by the drought, he believes the government can still maintain its goal of returning the national budget to surplus by the year beginning July 2014. The country was sent into the red after the 2008 global financial crisis.
James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington, said New Zealanders should expect more summers such as the current one because of global warming. He said the dry subtropical weather that helps form deserts in places such as Africa and Australia is expanding toward the worlds poles.
He said the risk of drought in New Zealand will keep increasing and water resources will become more stretched. He said that in certain places, dairy cows, with their reliance on abundant water, may not be as viable in years to come but that other more drought-resistant crops and species could replace them.
We may need to change our approach to farming, Renwick said. Whatever the climate is, theres always something you can do.
Such as, perhaps, growing grapes.
The weather for us is stunningly good, said Philip Gregan, chief executive of New Zealand Wine, an association representing grape growers and winemakers. Were getting warm, dry, cooler nights. Its the perfect recipe for fully ripe fruit with fabulous flavors.
Gregan said winemakers across the country are expecting an excellent vintage as the annual grape harvest begins.
New Zealands sauvignon blanc is well-regarded internationally, but the industry remains small when compared to farming. Winemaking accounts for about 1.2 billion New Zealand dollars in exports while farming accounts for about 25 billion New Zealand dollars.
The sunny weather in the capital city Wellington has been drawing thousands of tourists and office workers to the waterfront.
Simon Edmonds, who owns the waterfront cafe Tuatua, said late-summer business is up 30 to 40 percent over the same time last year. But, he said, locals seem to have become so accustomed to sunny days this year that theyre not arriving in the same numbers as they did on fine days in previous years.
People cant go out and buy lunch every single day, he said.
Some relief came with weekend rains although one dousing wont be nearly enough to undo the drought.
For Rose, the dairy farmer, the end of the golden weather cant come quick enough.