- Associated Press - Thursday, March 14, 2013

CARTERTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - New Zealand has officially declared its most widespread drought in at least 30 years.

The government said Friday the entire North Island is a drought zone after adding several more regions to those already designated as suffering from drought.

The official designation provides farmers some financial relief through increased government funding of rural groups and tax breaks. Farmers facing serious financial hardship will also be eligible to apply for temporary unemployment benefits.

The drought has forced dairy farmers to reduce their herds in a country which relies on the industry for export earnings. Farmers estimate the drought has so far cost them about 1 billion New Zealand dollars ($820 million).

Parts of the North Island are drier than they’ve been in 70 years.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Dairy farmer John Rose has sent more than 100 of his cows to the slaughterhouse over recent weeks as a severe drought browned pastures in New Zealand’s normally verdant North Island.

He said it was necessary to thin his herd so that his remaining 550 cows have enough to eat. He’s supplementing their diet with ground palm kernel as the grass in his fields withers.

“We try and make sure they’ve got water and shade during the day and do the best we can for them,” he said. “It’s very hard to remember when the last rain fall was.”

The drought is costing farmers millions of dollars each day and is beginning to take a toll on the country’s economy. Parts of the North Island are drier than they’ve been in 70 years and some scientists say the unusual weather could be a harbinger of climate change. There has been little significant rainfall in the northern and eastern parts of the country since October.

But some are finding the dry, sun soaked days a boon. Vintners say the conditions are perfect for them. And city dwellers are reveling in eating lunch outdoors or spending evenings at the beach in a Southern Hemisphere summer that never seems to end.

Farmers estimate the drought has so far cost them about 1 billion New Zealand dollars ($820 million) in lost export earnings with the damage rising daily as they reduce their herds, which in turn results in lower milk production.

Farming, and dairy cows in particular, drives the economy in the island nation of 4.5 million and the drought is expected to shave about a percentage point off economic growth.

New Zealand’s last significant drought was five years ago and also cost farmers billions of dollars.

Bruce Wills, president of farming association Federated Farmers, said North Island slaughterhouses are processing about 40 percent more cows and sheep this year as farmers reduce their herds. The increased numbers and lighter weight of the animals has resulted in plummeting prices, he said.

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