CARTERTON, New Zealand -- 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.
"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 rainfall 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.
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.
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.
North Island farmers are also sending stock to the South Island, which hasn't been so affected. Mr. Wills said farmers have sent 1.5 million lambs and other stock on ferries to the South Island to graze or be slaughtered there.
"One of the challenges with a drought is that the impact can go on for a number of years," he said. "We'll have a lower lambing percentage next year because there hasn't been enough feed this year."
James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington, said New Zealanders should expect more summers like the current one due to global warming. He said the dry subtropical weather that helps forms deserts in places like Africa and Australia is expanding toward the world's poles.
"We may need to change our approach to farming," Mr. Renwick said. "Whatever the climate is, there's always something you can do."
Like, perhaps, growing grapes.
"The weather for us is stunningly good," said Philip Gregan, the chief executive of New Zealand Wine, an association representing grape growers and winemakers. "We're getting warm, dry, cooler nights. It's the perfect recipe for fully ripe fruit with fabulous flavors."
Mr. Gregan said the annual grape harvest is just getting under way and that winemakers across the country are expecting an excellent vintage.
New Zealand's sauvignon blanc is well-regarded internationally, but the industry remains small when compared with farming. Winemaking accounts for about 1.2 billion New Zealand dollars ($1 billion) in exports while farming accounts for about 25 billion New Zealand dollars ($20.6 billion).