Farm profile: Dawson Farm

Hawke’s Bay farmers Nick and Nicky Dawson are used to the challenges of farming and Mother Nature, but nothing could have prepared them for Cyclone Gabrielle

Flooding has caused huge land slips all over the farm

Many dairy farmers around the North Island are feeling and counting the cost of the major destruction caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

Vast areas of land have been torn apart in landslips and fences washed away by the power of the cyclone, which also destroyed bridges and roadways cutting off access to many farms.

Added to that and one of the biggest immediate problems was a lack of power leaving farmers unable to milk their cows.

This has meant the only options have been to dump the milk, or dry off herds ahead of schedule, inevitably losing income no matter which choice is made.

Unexpected impact

Nick and Nicky Dawson milk 460 cows inland from Napier in Hawke’s Bay in an area called Patoka. The duo farm 216 hectares and lease a further block of 500 hectares, which they run as a beef and sheep farm as well as grazing with their dairy stock.

In 2020, the Dawsons were awarded the Fonterra Responsible Dairying Award for their commitment to nurturing the environmental health of their farm developing a wetland and extensive riparian planting. That hard work has all been destroyed.

Nicky and Nick Dawson milk 460 cows at Patoka, Hawke’s Bay

As days dragged on with no sign of power being re-established, Nick and Nicky were forced to dry off their cows, even more bittersweet as the herd was performing 26% better than normal and income was good.

“We had a warning the cyclone was coming, but as we are not coastal and quite inland, we didn’t think we would be as exposed to the threat of the cyclone,” says Nicky. 

“During the night, the rain didn’t seem as bad as other storms we have had. Everyone who has farmed in the east coast talk about Cyclone Bola, which hit the region hard in the past. Gabrielle has surpassed Bola in so many ways.

“One of the reasons this event was so bad is that we have had record rainfalls leading up to it, and the ground was very sodden.”

When the Dawsons woke up the morning after the storm and surveyed the damage, they were shell-shocked to see how bad it was.

Fallen trees blocked the road, meaning they couldn’t get to their son’s lease farm one kilometre away. Huge landslips had also cut the Dawsons off from the main road and the road bridge was badly damaged and covered in silt.

Since Cyclone Gabrielle took out power supplies, the Dawsons were forced to dry off their herd early

On top of all, like many, the family had no cell phone or WiFi coverage, which made contacting family, community, and friends impossible.

“With the power gone, our cows couldn’t be milked. They were 26% ahead on production over last year, so we were setting ourselves up for a record season with our contract milker,” says Nick.

“We eventually were able to milk in the neighbour’s shed, as they had a huge generator flown in by helicopter. We were able to run the cows through their shed for three days but have since dried them off, as around 30 farms in the east coast region have no access to a milk tanker to collect milk.

“Thankfully, our farm buildings, hay shed, cow shed, and houses are all ok. We have had damage to some culverts and also pipes to our effluent pond. Also, a few fences have been washed away.

“Our major issue with power loss – other than not being able to milk the cows – is getting water to them. Now we have a generator at our cow shed and another PTO one at our pump to help us supply the troughs.

Damaged roads and bridges have cut off access to the Dawson’s farm

“Our flat paddocks are ok, but our steeper country has big slips caused by run-off out the back of the farm. Many of our riparian plantings have been washed away or damaged due to the huge amount of rain that flooded the area.

“Years of hard work improving the environmental and sustainability of the farm have been destroyed.”

For now, the Dawsons have enough feed for their animals as the lease farm can cater for the home dairy herd.

“We also have 10 hectares of maize ready for silage and eight hectares of fodder beet so we are well set up. Things could change pretty quickly as we head into winter,” says Nicky.

“We have no access to the farm due to the collapse of the Rissington Bridge, and our roads have all been damaged. Our bridge near our house has a big slip so not really suitable for larger vehicles like a stock truck or milk tanker. Repairs have been made but, unfortunately, we have had more rain.”

Dairy farmers in the region, including the Dawsons, have praised their milk processor Fonterra, who stepped in to help them financially during this stressful time.

“Fonterra has been fabulous. Our local area manager flew in with two vets and spoke with all the dairy farmers in the district. They gave us the go-ahead to dry the cows off due to the tankers being unable to collect our milk,” says Nick.

Work by the Dawsons to improve the environmental aspect of their farm has been destroyed

“This will be ongoing for some time, as it’s not a quick fix to put up a bridge that has completely been washed away. Hopefully, when we calve in August, the tankers will have access. Our next-door neighbours have just started calving again so will have to milk via a generator and milk will have to be dumped or fed to pigs until a tanker can access our roads.”

Normal protocol on the Dawson farm sees them milking a small herd of 100 empty cows and other cows until the main herd starts calving in late July into August.

The Dawsons will lose their income normally gained from the milk and will
have huge bills to pay to repair the damage, but there has been a gesture of goodwill from Fonterra.

“Fonterra has made the call to pay us the average of three years of production on the next three-and-a-half months. This is unprecedented, and one that certainly gives us an income while we get back on track,” says Nicky.

“It’s hard to know the total cost of fixing the tracks, fencing, and water supply, as we have been working on just sorting out the local roading and helping the community to get supplies via the boat or helicopter.

“We probably would be down over $500,000 in income less costs, but as Fonterra is going to pay out, it will probably be more in the region of $150,000 in milk only. We can’t send cull animals away so will keep them on at this stage.”

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