Preparing your lifestyle block for climate change
Ruth Renner and her partner farm on 100 hectares in the Far North, breeding just 30 cows a year, so she has only up to 80 cattle on the farm at any one time. Renners property is bigger than what might usually be considered a lifestyle block there is no official definition, but one would generally be under 4 hectares, according to Settled.govt.nz but it is much smaller than the average farm . They have farmed the land for at least 25 years, long enough to see some changes. There used to be floods every February, she said, but for several years now the floods have not come regularly. Renner has paid attention to the science , which says weather is going to become more variable and extreme . It was in 2008 that the "hell winter" struck . Nobody who was there has forgotten the torrential rain, but not everyone remembered the lessons, Renner said. The land turned to bog, cattle had mud up to their ears from sploshing through muddy paddocks, and there was not enough for stock to eat because everything was so wet. Renner was overstocked, and was forced to buy in feed for all the hungry mouths. It was horrible. My animals were stressed and I was really stressed. At the end of that year I decided that we would downsize slightly for the next year so if it ever happened again we werent caught in that situation. I think Id got up to 55 cows calving at that stage and I think we lost two calves that year. There were animal welfare issues all over Northland. Severe drought followed the next year, and the land turned to concrete. I was really glad I destocked. Lots of people got into horrible trouble through that period, and we didnt so much because we had far fewer stock. Ive just kept low since then, Renner said. Covid added to her determination to keep stock numbers low, in case the couple fell ill and could not care for their animals. They had focused on repaying the mortgage as quickly as possible, in order to become independent. At times they had cut spending right back, but it was all part of the life they had chosen, she said. "Were not big consumers of anything really, and that for me is lifestyle as much as what we do with the land." Her biggest concern, the factor she feared could eventually stop her farming, was the new diseases that would eventually hit the cows. For the first time a tick-borne disease, theileria , has come to her herd. She worried about how warmer weather would allow different pest plants and insects to survive. While waiting for technological solutions to some of the problems, she focused on moderating her own practices. I reduce my load on the land so that I take less out of it, that I have less negative effect on it. I believe thats the right thing to do. Kate Brennan, co-founder and owner of website lifestyleblock.co.nz , said experienced lifestyle block owners were very aware of the issues climate change brought. I think the main thing for us is severe weather events. We have huge rain events up here. Problems included slips, the effects on pasture of excessive rain followed drought, pasture management and production, and livestock health issues including diseases. Its a huge thing and often lifestyle blocks are on fairly marginal land anyway, Brennan said. Im on 210 acres [84 hectares] of very steep land in Northland, so theyre not all little flat things. People on lifestyle blocks needed to think seriously about how many animals they could carry, and particularly how they would cope in drought, Brennan said. The carrying capacity of a lot of blocks was reducing because of the changes in weather patterns. But destocking was not easy when everybody else was trying to do the same thing. Weve had a number of droughts over the past few years and thats obviously increasing, and the problem is you cant make feed where it doesnt exist, she said. You can buy in feed, but when everybodys buying in feed it can be really hard to get, and particularly things like hay, during drought its almost impossible to get. There are support systems put in place, but you have to think how youre going to do it. If a property was prone to flooding or drought, options were fairly limited, but there were still things that could be done ahead of time such as planting fodder trees to provide food for animals during drought. It was important to have the right sort of shelter available so animals did not suffer, not to let pastures get weedy, and to make sure water flowed away from the property rather than pooling up not on to the neighbours land, however. Lifestyle blocks were fairly small, so the impacts were magnified. Youve got much less room for error and much less back-up. A farm might have some land thats high up they can move stock to, but if youve only got a small block then thats all of it. Neighbours should try to plan, and work together if the worst happened, for example dropping a fence when it flooded so animals at risk of drowning could escape next door. And be as flexible as possible when it comes to animals or crops, and plan for change, she said. Bear in mind things are changing, you cant just say this is what Im going to do for the next 20 years, lifes not like that any more. Brennan did not expect people to be put off lifestyle blocks, although climate change effects would add more stress and make some things less viable. Covid lockdowns had made many people reassess their surroundings, and working from home had become a lot more normalised, so it may as well be somewhere green and quiet. It could be hard finding help or resources for lifestyle blocks, with agricultural companies focusing on commercial farmers because it was easier, she said. Ministry for Primary Industries animal welfare director Stephen Cobb said MPI encouraged lifestyle block owners to develop a feed plan for stock. Animals need more feed depending on growth, pregnancy, lactation, and weather conditions. Things like drought and Covid-19 disruptions can create feed pressure, so its important to think about whether you have enough feed for the number of animals you have, Cobb said. During the summer months, its important to ensure animals can easily access plenty of water and shade, to prevent dehydration and heat stress. We recommend that lifestyle block owners with a smaller number of animals obtain a stock trailer, so they can evacuate with them if they need to. We work with lifestyle block groups to promote handy tips, like encouraging landowners to work together to share a hay contractor etc. Our key message to people who buy lifestyle blocks or small blocks of land is to seek expert or professional advice if they have gaps in their knowledge or skills around feeding and caring for livestock, he said. Help was also available from regional councils , which could help with some costs in mitigating climate change effects, such as planting to stabilise hillsides, and fencing off waterways.