How dry is dry?

Alan Sharp goes up north to visit former Gordonton farmers Luke and Helen Ballard and reports back on the effects of the drought.

The North is known for summer cracks - these were more than a full arm's width and depth.
The north is known for summer cracks – these were more than a full arm’s width and depth.

Fortunately as I write this, the autumn rains have finally arrived, and most farming regions have experienced a week (April 14 – 21) of good ground soaking rain. But that was not the case the week before, as one of New Zealand’s driest summers kept on keeping on.

While one or two localities, had had some good isolated falls in March, they were not drought breakers.

Never before had all farming regions of New Zealand, been declared drought zones, in the same year. There is talk of it being the worst in 70 years, so every farmer you approached, would have had a personal take, and strong opinions, on the dry summer. The sum of their own experience in farming, and if, in the same region for generations, the experiences that, over time, had been handed down.

So that too, was the case when I called in upon Luke and Helen Ballard, in south Maungaturoto., at the upper reaches of the Kaipara Harbour.

They had never had it so dry, nor dried the cows off so early. Summer crops could not cover, for the lack of grass growth experienced this year, and worse was to befall them. There was no water left, in their dairy farm dams.

The forlorn sight of the empty farm dam and barren adjacent land.
The forlorn sight of the empty farm dam and barren adjacent land.

The previous big dry that they experienced was in 2009, the first year of their new cowshed. Son David had acquired the neighbouring, dry stock farm over the hill, and cow numbers were increased. He was able to siphon a trickle of water over the hill, from an underutilised dam on his block, and for the first time they had recycled treated farm waste water, from the treatment dam, that releases into the upper harbour. All for stock drinking water and yard washing. All cow shed plant, and dwelling water, was trucked in, from the Maungataroto Dairy Factory.

The lessons from 2009 had been hard learnt. Since then dams had been cleaned of accumulated silt. Summer green feed crops had been increased, and grown to keep the cows milking, through the expected dry spells of the Kaipara summer. The 80-gallon sheep troughs, on the bought-in land, were being augmented with bigger troughs, to allow the herd a greater range of the former, dry stock slopes. As the dry, this year, started to bite, a heavy cull took place of carry-over, and fattening dry stock.

Yet despite all the drought planning, come that second weekend in April, they had never had it so bad. At the start of the road to Batley (six to seven kilometers away) 25mm of rain had fallen at the beginning of the month, but they had only got 11mm. The first breeze, and it was gone.

Looking south from Ballard's rise, into son David's block.
Looking south from Ballard’s rise, into son David’s block.

To add to their woes, at the end of February, Luke had come out in a cold sweet one day, and though he knew they were under pressure, thought he was okay, but should get himself checked out. Some 10 days later he had had, a five-way heart bypass operation in Auckland Hospital, after first spending a night in Whangarei Hospital. So though recovering very well, was only on light farm duties, and was once again frustrated, this time having to watch his wife Helen, and son David, carry an even heaver load.

Luke Ballard
Luke Ballard with unclaimed, sawn and split puriri posts. Propbably pre-depression.


As I left, David was drilling the last of their crop paddocks, and then their next task was to try and pump water, up from a neighbour’s underutilised dam. I estimate that dam to be some 600m from their farm. Another big task.

Before leaving the North, I travelled up to Ruarangi. It is the area that the Crook’s brothers moved to from Rototuna to, 40 odd years ago. There on the limestone hills, that back on to the Waipu Caves, it was very evident that they had had good rains in the proceeding week or two.

On Monday April 15 I attended, in light rain, the Wellsford cattle auction where prices, I felt, were stronger than Frankton. Before leaving the North I phoned Helen on Tuesday afternoon, to learn that they had had 45mm of good soaking rain, and just a trickle was starting to find its way into their main dam. Thank God for that. Then she told me, that they had been phoned that morning, to inform them that the neighbour’s wife had died, though not completely unexpected, they now had a funeral to attend as well.

The Ballards asked me to send their regards, to long-time residents of Gordonton, as that is where they started their farming journey, and have fond memories of.

Luke, distantly related to the Gordonton Ballards and other families, came from Pukekohe, as an Auckland farm cadet, in the early 1960s, to Arthur Riddell’s farm.

After marrying Helen, he purchased cows from Ron Sharp in 1969, and commenced milking for Victor Ballard, on his small Freshfield farm, on the north side of Ballard Road (Then Lake Road) and now part of the Tainui farm.

After some seasons there, they moved to Wises dairy farm opposite Miers, on Woodlands Road. By the 1980s they were farm owners at Ruawai in the North, milking cows and growing kumeras. Finally since the 1990s they have been milking cows, on a farm they bought on Linton Road, off Batley Road, South Maungataroto.

luke - post

So how dry is dry? Try your hand at farming, and then you too, will have a valid point to make, about farming to/for the local conditions, and particularly on the weather. Not everyone can last the distance.

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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

One thought on “How dry is dry?

  • April 26, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Post script exactly 12 months later.

    I took an opportunity to revisit the Ballards’s on April 12th. When I phoned Luke about visiting, I said this autumns dry was harder on us in Gordonton, than the previous, and he agreed that they were in a similar situation. Their farm was out of water three weeks earlier than 2013, but now it looked like a green drought, as they had had several light rains of a few millimetres each, just enough to sprout the autumn seeds. The two main dams had just been completely desludged, and were awaiting autumn rains of consequence.

    Ruawai, their former place of farm ownership was the worst he had ever seen, and he knew of large autumn calving, winter milk herds, that had no grass, and were reliant on palm kernel and bought in feeds, plus their precious stored winter [supplementary] feed supplies.

    Luke advised that the succession of droughts, since they built their new cowshed in 2009, had taken the pleasure out of farming into their late 60’s, so they had sold the farm. Last years heart by-pass op and this years knee replacement, I presume was also a factor.

    Though now gold card holders, once a dairy farmer, always a dairy farmer, they plan on still seeing a season or two, in the dairy shed as relief milkers.

    I wish them all the best.


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