Northland dairy farmers need 30mm of rain followed by another good soaking to get any growth, and even then, it could take weeks for pasture to recover.
Already soil moisture levels had reached a deficit of 100mm, with no immediate rain relief in sight.
Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy yesterday declared Northland an official drought region.
Mr Guy visited Kylie and Malcolm Welsh's Baylys Coast Rd farm in Dargaville to assess the situation first hand before making the announcement.
"The entire North Island is extremely dry but Northland is one of the worst hit," he said.
Niwa figures last week showed Northland's (north of the Harbour Bridge) soil moisture levels were in deficit of 100mm and no rain of any substance was likely for the next two weeks.
"'Farmers have already taken practical steps to deal with the dry, such as destocking and switching to once a day milking, but it is now beyond a normal dry summer and into an extreme climatic event."
The Welshs milk a 330 spring calving herd on 115ha near Baylys Beach. Mr Welsh said he started supplementary feeding of palm kernel about eight weeks ago and is feeding 9kg-10kg of palm kernel per cow daily. This equates to 90 per cent of the herd's diet.
He expects the feed costs and loss of income through reduced production (currently about 10,000kg/ms) would be $100,000-plus. He has already dried off 40 cows and has put them on "preferential feeding" to maintain their condition. He is relieved he has silage reserves for winter.
However, he admits the situation will be challenging and he has budgeted for conservative dividend payments due in April.
Drought call aids farmers
He says his situation is "pretty general for other farms in Western Kaipara" and some may be faring even worse.
Rural Support Trust spokeswoman Julie Jonkers said Northland farmers facing a third drought in four years will find it even more difficult to cope this time, not only with the loss of production but increased costs and lower payouts.
"Many farmers capitalised their debt in the 2010 drought - they will have less equity available to do it again," said Mrs Jonkers, and this will make it difficult for them to fund on farm cost such as additional supplementary feeds. Autumn calvers are expected to be hit hard.
The declaration of a medium-scale event allows extra Government funding to co-ordinate support such as the Rural Support Trusts. The support networks will work with farmers to provide counselling, farm advice and help with approaching banks and IRD.
In extreme cases, there will also be rural assistance payments available to farmers in severe hardship to put food on the table.
Mr Guy said: "The Government is concerned about the welfare of the farmers, particularly their wives, who traditionally do the books ... as well as animal welfare. A big part of this is the Government recognising the need for emotional support."
He said the increased feed costs were the responsibility of individual farmers who had to plan for these events.
"The effects of this drought will not only affect this season, but next," he said.
Mr Guy said droughts could be called in Waikato and Hawke's Bay in the near future if there is no substantial rain soon.