droughtEl Niño is now well established and it’s highly likely to continue over summer and into autumn (90% chance). This will result in stronger or more frequent southwesterlies in spring and westerlies in summer, with cooler temperatures and more rain in the west and drier conditions in the north and east.

The dry conditions if El Niño are being superimposed on already dry conditions in the east of both Islands (especially North Canterbury), and this El Niño could be among the strongest ever recorded! For those of us in the dry areas it is going to be a long dry summer and autumn and livestock will suffer unless owners take appropriate action now.

What to do

  • Develop a feeding plan and budget and review it as the season progresses.
  • Get the feed you will need now or book it as soon as possible.
  • Set trigger dates or criteria for making decisions.

Get advice and support

Below are some practical tips to help manage stock during El Niño.

Food budgeting

1. Prepare a food budget now.

a. How many animals will you be able to farm?
b. How much feed they will need?
c. What will you have available?
d. What will you need to buy in?

It is absolutely vital to think well ahead – not just through this summer but through autumn and winter too. In some areas there is unlikely to be significant pasture growth before next spring.

2. Procure feed supplies.

We can be sure that pasture and supplementary feeds will be scarce so it is important to budget carefully.

  • Secure access to supplementary feed now.
  • In most areas, baleage has been made and hay is available or it will be soon, so now is the time to procure or to book what you will need.
  • Supplies of grain and concentrates will dwindle as the pressure comes on so get what you think you will need before stocks run out.
  • Supplementary feed is expensive – but if you can’t afford it you will have to your reduce your stocking rate.

Supplementary Food: How much will you need?

Hay is likely to be the cheapest option, but you get what you pay for in terms of quality.

Estimate how much you will need:

  • Budget for summer AND autumn and winter.
  • There is often a boost to pasture growth in autumn but that may not happen this year if dry areas don’t get rain before then.
  • A good rule of thumb is that livestock need about 2% of their body weight in an equivalent weight of good quality meadow hay every day.

The weight of small bales of hay varies great, but say your bales weigh on average 25kg, this means a horse weighing 500kg needs 10kg or just under half a bale of hay a day – more if it’s working and less if there is some other feed source like pasture. A 250 kg pony needs about half of that, or less if it’s fat.

A group of ten sheep weighing about 50 kg each would need half a bale a day.

It’s best to oversupply if in doubt, as some hay will inevitably be trampled and wasted.

Consider other sources of supplementary herbage. Willow branches and tree lucerne can be browsed, or cut and supplied.


  • Determine appropriate stocking rates for the predicted dry conditions.
  • Wean lambs as early as possible and sell or get them to the works.
  • Consider developing a relationship with a commercial farmer who can graze your stock.
  • Choose to de-stock earlier rather than later – finding farms to take surplus stock even temporarily will become more difficult as the drought progresses.

Water, water, water…..

A constant supply of potable (safe and drinkable) water is absolutely vital especially in dry weather.

  • Clean your water troughs.
  • Check to make sure there are no leaks in the pipes.
  • Put a plank or short branch in each trough so that any thirsty wildlife that fall in don’t drown.
    • Decomposing carcasses in water supplies can cause severe disease.
    • Palatability of water is affected by decomposing carcasses.
    • Keep a reserve supply of full water containers and use them to fill troughs if required.

Prevent heat stress

  • If you haven’t done it already, shear sheep and angora-type goats now.
  • In the hottest weather, provide shade (paddocks with trees or hedges).
  • Don’t cover horses or ponies in hot weather or use only the lightest covers – horses need to sweat to lose heat (they can’t pant).
  • Make sure your dogs always have access to potable drinking water and shade – remember that they need to pant to lose heat.

Our thanks to Helen Beattie of SPCA Otago for her help to compile this article.

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