Planning crucial to surviving El Nino drought

29 November 2023

El Nino has arrived in New Zealand and its impacts, including drought, are likely to become stronger and last into 2024.

Every El Nino is different and unstoppable but with advanced warning and well-planned preparations, growers and their crops can get through.

El Nino weather patterns typically occur every three to seven years, usually peaking during late spring or early summer and then weakening the following year. Under a ‘normal’ El Nino, summer is likely to bring stronger or more frequent westerly winds, drier conditions in the east and more rain in the west. What is different this time is that New Zealand’s weather will be affected by two weather patterns, one in the Pacific and one in the Indian Ocean. This combination brought substantial and wide-spread drought to New Zealand in 2019 and 2020.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) have prepared a helpful resource that explains El Nino and the predicted weather patterns this summer, this can be found on the MPI website here.

New Zealand growers and orchardists are facing what may be a tough growing season and HortNZ urges you to be prepared.

It’s important to make a plan and act early, and then review and revise your plan along the way. Think about the outcomes you want to achieve and set specific dates for making key decisions depending on financial, weather, soil, moisture, and crop conditions at those times.

Active monitoring enables horticultural strategies to be adjusted to manage drought conditions effectively, optimize water use, maintain crop health, and ensure long-term sustainability. Monitor the daily weather forecasts, seasonal forecasts, extreme weather and fire warnings. Using on-farm weather stations will allow you to closely monitor the localised weather conditions and tailor your strategy to that.

Have a robust and realistic budget and check it frequently to manage financial impacts of reduced crop yields or increased costs associated with drought conditions.

HortNZ recommends that you undertake water budgeting to plan for water restrictions and use irrigation water as efficiently as possible. Make sure you consider your irrigation output as well as all water inputs such as rainfall, surface water and sub-surface water. Regularly check your irrigation systems to ensure they are well maintained, free of leaks and optimised for economical water use.  Watering plants during the coolest part of the day will minimise water losses due to evaporation.

Other techniques for adjusting your irrigation programme that you can consider include:

  • Using a Regulated Deficit Irrigation (RDI) strategy, which involves fully irrigating during critical periods for crops and limiting irrigation during non-critical periods. This is an effective strategy as the sensitivity of crops to water deficit varies at different growing stages.
  • Irrigating your most profitable blocks first. Focusing fixed water resources on smaller areas may increase net yield compared to spreading the same volume of water across larger areas.
  • Monitoring soil moisture using sensors and taking plant water stress measurements and using these to schedule irrigation and direct water to the plants that most need it.

If you need help and advice talk to your regional On Farm Support advisor, rural professional or talk to experts, such as your bank, accountant, professional advisers, and peers who have navigated drought conditions before. If you are unsure where to go for advice or assistance, get in touch with the Rural Support Trust.

Useful resources

Web link: Drought forecasting dashboard

A 35-day forecast, updated every 24 hours, shows weather themes and trends. Consulting the tool regularly will help growers be less reactive and make timely decisions which may bring financial and emotional benefits.

Web link: Preparing for El Niño

A useful resource prepared by MPI.

Web link: Managing stress

Provides tips on managing stress and uncertainty.

Web link: Rural Support Trust

Help and support for rural New Zealand.

Web link: Rural farm & business fire safety

Keep track of the fire danger and weather conditions in your area.

Web link: NIWA daily climate maps

Daily map updates on soil moisture and rainfall.

Web link: Seasonal Climate Outlook

Provides air temperature, rainfall, soil moisture and river flow predictions.