Down here in the South our biggest challenge a few years ago was a terrible storm that hit in mid-September.  It brought snow, sleet, and icy gale-force winds.  It went on and on and on for more than a week, right at the height of the lambing season.

Most farmers had done all they could to plan ahead, with plenty of pasture and shelterbelts for lambing ewes.  However it was a particularly severe and unusual storm and whereas there is little that could have been done to prevent the terrible stock losses that occurred, there are some lessons to be learned.

The storm

The storm wasn't like most storms that blow themselves out in a few days.  The week before it hit, the media was reporting that 'the worst storm on the planet - the size of Australia' was heading our way.  And the warnings weren't wrong.

Very heavy snowfalls, very strong relentless icy winds, and sleet and wind blasted the whole of the south day after day.  The wind chill was extreme.  It was relentlessly cruel.

The storm had one effect that hit the headlines right away - the roof of the Invercargill stadium caved in under the weight of snow.  But at the same time, hundreds of farmers in the region were quietly experiencing horrendous disasters of their own.

Stock losses

Sheep and cattle died but the heaviest losses were of ewes and newborn lambs.

The storm could have cost sheep and cattle farmers more than $100 million and wiped out up to 400 full-time seasonal jobs for southern meat workers.  It has been estimated that as many as 1.5 million lambs and thousands of ewes died.

Some farmers in the worst hit areas of coastal Southland and South Otago lost half their lambs and hundreds of ewes.  One farmer lost 1000 ewes worth more than $100 each, and another lost 1500 lambs, representing $120,000 in lost income.

Whatever the final numbers, there will be far-reaching repercussions for the southern economy.  MAF forecast that the average Southland sheep and beef farmer will make a $30,000-$40,000 loss this year as a direct result of the storm.

Farmer stress

The financial losses were bad enough, but for many farmers, their inability to help their sheep was particularly stressful, yet they have faced vocal criticism from people who think they didn't try hard enough to help their sheep.  The effect of this criticism on top of the emotional and physical stress farmers was already experiencing was soul-destroying for many.

Why did so many sheep die?

Most Southland sheep farmers have thousands of ewes, and at the time of the storm, most of the ewes were lambing or approaching lambing.

The storm brought particularly heavy falls of wet snow that quickly became thick and deep.  Where there were shelter belts, the snow piled up on the leeward side where many of the ewes went to get relief from the driving wind and snow, so the snow trapped hundreds of heavily pregnant and lambing ewes.

Many of the ewes chose to stay in the lee of the shelterbelts rather than go out to dig for pasture.  So during the storm thousands of ewes, maybe tens of thousands died of sleepy sickness because they couldn't or wouldn't go out to dig through the snow for the pasture they needed.  In late pregnancy, ewes need a lot of food, especially if they are carrying two or more lambs as most of them were.  If they don't get enough food they get a metabolic disease called sleepy sickness - it's usually fatal.

Many ewes lambed during the storm and most of the lambs born died of starvation and hypothermia when they became trapped in the snow and mud in the lee of the shelter belts.

Why couldn't farmers take food to the sheep?

The snow was so thick and wet that for most farmers it was impossible to drive trucks or quads through it.  Most farmers had to work alone or with their partners, and it was physically impossible for them to reach all their ewes.  Most exhausted themselves trying but the conditions meant that most farmers managed to reach relatively few.

Farmers don't deserve criticism

Southland farmers are among the best farmers in the world, so most of their ewes were in good body condition, there was plenty of good pasture for them to eat, many of them were carrying twin lambs, and most of the farms had good traditional shelterbelts for their lambing ewes.  But none of this helped.

Have any lessons been learned?

One farmer who lost nearly half of his lambs and a quarter of his ewes reports that he had learned one thing from the storm that might be useful in years to come.  The paddocks where losses were least were those with lots of scattered tussock grasses and flax bushes.  There wasn't a lot of pasture or traditional shelter in the form of windbreaks, but the tussock allowed the ewes and lambs to get in underneath, the snow was kept off the lambs, and the little bit of sustenance the ewes could get by eating the crowns helped them survive the storm.

Ironically in most years paddocks like this would not be ideal for lambing because of insufficient pasture, but the unusual nature of the storm meant they had advantages over paddocks with more pasture and better windbreaks.

In the future, Southland farmers may well consider establishing scattered tussock/flax bushes in more of their paddocks as well as providing their more traditional tree/shrub shelterbelts.