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.
North Island farmers are also sending stock to the South Island, which hasn't been so affected. 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," he said of the impact on animal fertility.
The official government designation of a drought 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.
"It's a very serious problem," said lawmaker David Shearer. "It's obviously affecting farmers, but the other part is it's also going to flow through to our rural communities â¿¿ the retail shops and the businesses."
Bill English, the country's finance minister, said that despite the economic difficulties caused by the drought, he believes the government can still maintain its goal of returning the national budget to surplus by the year beginning July 2014. The country was sent into the red after the 2008 global financial crisis.
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.
He said the risk of drought in New Zealand will keep increasing and water resources will become more stretched. He said that in certain places, dairy cows, with their reliance on abundant water, may not be as viable in years to come but that other more drought-resistant crops and species could replace them.