Weatherwise. Published in Lifestyle Farmer
In the city, coping with the vagaries of the weather was quite straightforward. My husband is one of those people who seems to know exactly what the weather is going to do. Before going out, the girls and I asked, "Do we need an umbrella? Is it going to rain?" He would have an uncanny knack of nearly always giving the right advice. Of course, in an urban environment it’s not so important, unless perhaps, there’s a picnic or boat trip planned, or an outdoor concert or sporting event, or maybe a major occasion like a wedding.
But when we moved to the country we all swiftly realized paying attention to the weather had become a serious matter. Not only did it impact on every facet of rural life, but we were also exposed to a range of weather extremes.
Even though a barrage of well-known weather sayings immediately came to mind, it was no use depending on them. You cannot simply presume it is about to rain when the cat washes behind its ears or when you see birds sitting on a telephone wire. Neither can you bank on a storm not being far away, because ants are busier. And while the rhyme, “Red sky at night, shepherds' delight, Red sky in the morning, shepherds' warning”, may seem to be reasonably accurate, it was time to enhance folklore with science.
That was when I noticed there was more to my husband’s skill than simple intuition. I saw that he always checked the weather map in the daily newspaper, listened to the forecasts on air, watched the final TV weather forecast report and tapped the barometer by the front door to see if the atmospheric pressure was falling (stormy weather on the way) or staying high (weather likely to stay fine).
He also knew where to go for the extra help we now needed and we were soon using forecasting information available online.
We checked out The Met Service on www.metservice.com. and found it offers phone, fax and online services for the rural sector - some free, some not, based on daily satellite readouts put together by Meteorologists. We found localised information pertaining to frost reports and wind warnings, plus free short and extended short forecasts for all of NZ; severe weather outlooks and forecasts; frost forecasts and seasonal forecasts; pollen forecasts; a cow heat stress index and pasture growth forecasts. We noted there is an option to receive information by phone or fax - Metphone, Metfax. It’s also the place to learn to read a weather map properly. There’s a full explanation on fronts, ridges, troughs, cols, lows, highs and isobars.
We liked the guidance provided by Ken Ring based on ‘Weather by the Moon’. Along with the very useful inclusion in every edition of ‘Lifestyle Farmer’, his website ‘Home of Long Range Weather’ (www.predictweather.com) also offers several general free forecasts, plus some more specific which are charged for. Ken Ring describes his predictions as being ‘generated by calculating lunar orbits well ahead’ and in a recent TV interview, said his long-range predictions are ‘binocular as opposed to microscope’ as the process involved in making predictions, looks 355 days out, when the moon and the stars are in the same place as today. He gives a forecast for every day of the coming year and surveys show his predictions have a high level of accuracy.
By including this source, we knew we were following in the footsteps of farmers all over the world, who throughout time, have referred to the information recorded in almanacs on the tides, phases of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun and weather predictions to help them decide when to plant and harvest crops.
We also got hold of a Gardening by the Zodiac or Moon calendar with calculations worked out on a day-to-day basis, giving advice for all aspects of work in the garden - when to sow, harvest, weed, take cuttings etc for different types of vegetables or flowers. We were careful to get one drawn up for the Southern Hemisphere, with seasons appropriate for this part of world. While we knew that the moon with its predictable cycles has provided a natural horticultural cue throughout time aligning gardening activities with the appropriate moon phase and zodiac sign, we also used common sense. It is no use going out to plant seedlings, just because the calendar points to it being an ideal time, if it’s blowing a gale or the rain is pouring down.
Our aim was to be as informed as possible by paying attention to advance forecasts, planning in part, and then firming up with forecasts closer to the time of action. This helped sort out the best time to plant and harvest, undertake maintenance and building projects or deal with stock. For example, we could decide when to start seedlings inside under lights or in the greenhouse, ready to be planted out when the weather was warm enough, or decide to get in another crop at the end of the season, if we could see the weather staying warm enough, long enough. Likewise, looking further out, and being aware that a very wet winter was likely, meant being able to plan to complete outside projects earlier, or in the case of expectations of an extra dry summer, having extra feed for the sheep and watching water usage.
In the short term, we found by knowing what was probably on the way, we could start a job earlier or leave it till later to avoid bad weather. Who wants to be caught out by the onset of a storm?
As there are always short and long-term projects on a small block, the year becomes divided into a general timetable for indoor and outdoor jobs. Some needing a full week or even ten days of reasonably fine weather from start to finish. Jobs like tree trimming, ditch digging, fencing, chopping wood for winter and planting. We were one of several in the area, who relied on a visiting shearer to do our 20 odd lambs and it was always a worry if we got a rainy patch of weather and he got behind. We were also very aware of fire lighting restrictions that ruled out several months of the year (about mid Dec to late April/May) and grabbed the fine weather in the permitted time, to dispose of the ever-growing pile of broken branches or large tree trimmings that could not be composted.
But being savvy about the lie of your own land comes first. Although we knew that being east in New Zealand offers better weather conditions, it becomes only one criteria when purchasing a lifestyle block. Compromise means working with and making the best of where you are. In our case, we were able to build a north-facing house to catch a maximum amount sun, on our northwest property, but because we were in a valley, it also meant we got lots of rain. The colour of the sky became a useful warning indicator!
As a new arrival, talking with long-time locals is a great way to gather background on conditions in your area. We always took the opportunity to chat weather whenever we could. A neighbour involved in the earthmoving business for many years, did some work for us and was a sound source of information.
And as time went on, our awareness grew. For example, we found that long clear cool autumn nights, brought misty mornings and left leaves and grass covered in dew, as the cold air drained down into the valley. This was significant when we were working in the glasshouses and we would usually leave things like de-lateraling tomatoes till the atmosphere dried out, when they were less brittle. More generally we linked the start of seasonal changes to the water levels in the tanks or the dam, or the way the trees looked (e.g. less perky - getting dry) and we noticed the beautiful cones from our stone pine trees closing up as the wet came and re-opening when we had a spell of dry weather. We also learnt to work out how close a storm was, by counting the seconds between a flash of lightening and a thunderclap - about three seconds for each kilometre.
Furthermore, we found it was possible to have an idea of weather for future seasons by looking at current conditions. For example, often a hot summer precedes a cold winter, a dry spring can mean a wet summer, a windy spring can indicate a cool summer, a mild winter can denote a cool spring and if autumn is windy, you can probably expect a mild winter.
Of course, on a daily basis, clouds in the sky provide one of the most important weather indictors, but even though they had intrigued me at school, my knowledge was sketchy.
I was aware that clouds are formed by water vapour and are identified by position, colour and shape and I could also remember the three basic types: -cirrus – thin, wispy white clouds and the highest in the sky; cumulus – fluffy clumps of cloud billowing upwards from a flat base; stratus – layered, widespread sheets of horizontal cloud.
Now, I learnt to familiarize myself with the other basic cloud types - cirrostratus, altostratus, nimbostratus, altocumulus, cirrocumulus, stratocumulus and cumulonimbus.
Then I welcomed cumulus when they were high in a blue sky, knowing they accompanied fine weather. However, I was less happy when bigger cumulonimbus appeared lower and darker in the sky, because I knew they were bringing short heavy showers or thunderstorms.
If stratus appeared as huge grey sheets of low cloud stretching on and on, it meant we could be in for drizzly rain, while when cirrus, formed streaks high up across the sky, it told of strong winds blowing and indicated changing weather. Cirrocumulus, high level fluffy clouds indicated the weather might change and altocumulus mid-level fluffy clouds meant there would probably be light rain.
I also became aware of the insulating properties of clouds. Without cloud cover, the air temperature plummets, so we were prepared for a cold night, when the sky was cloudless.
Although we didn’t invest in a weathervane, I enjoyed watching them whirling around on the rooftops of several neighbouring farmhouses. Some had the traditional rooster shape that pointed towards the direction the wind was coming from. I did attempt to achieve the same end by moistening a finger and holding it out to the wind, to see which bit felt cold.
We did however make use of natural light to control the feeding system for the tomatoes in our glasshouses. We used an integrated control system consisting of a simple computer in the glasshouse connected to a light metre on top of the roof peak, which allowed the level of light during the day to be converted into a feeding rate for plants. We would have loved to have been able to afford an automatic venting system too, which many of the bigger glasshouses installed. These can be set up to be sensitive to wind, inside temperature and even rain. Instead, because our windows were manual, this was another reason to pay close attention to what the weather was doing.
We found the answer is to work with a flexible annual plan, drawn up based on guidelines from previous seasonal habits. And while dry sunny days are always precious and you need to make the most of them, there are times too, when you just have to be stalwart and deal with on-going tasks, regardless of the conditions. It’s all part of the joy of working on the land.