Tuesday, 03 December 2019 11:55

Winter grazing is everyone’s problem

Written by  Peter Burke
The taskforce has made 10 recommendations on improving winter grazing practices. The taskforce has made 10 recommendations on improving winter grazing practices.

The Government taskforce report on winter grazing says farmers are not solely to blame for all the problems associated with this practice.

It also points the finger at bank managers, seed merchants and other rural professionals, which it says must share some of the blame.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor set up the taskforce after photographs of cows grazing in deep mud were widely circulated and drew strong community criticism. At the time, O’Connor slammed the situation as unacceptable and set up the taskforce to look at the practice, the extent of problems and to recommend solutions.

The result is a 33-page report which delves into the issue and almost unbelievably says “there is not an agreed set of standards among farmers for good animal welfare practice”. In other words, there is no definition of what bad animal practice actually is. 

The authors of the report call for better compliance and communication on animal welfare issues. They say there is a need for everyone in the agri supply chain to better understand exactly what constitutes bad animal welfare practices.

To that end, one of the 10 recommendations by the taskforce states that animal welfare considerations must be elevated up farmers’ priority list and be seen in the same light as environmental issues.

The man who headed the taskforce, the respected veterinarian and animal welfare specialist Dr John Hellstrom, told Rural News that most of their recommendations are pretty much common sense. 

The extension process – getting information out to farmers -- is not working well and needs to be improved. 

Hellstrom says DairyNZ and Beef + LambNZ recognise there is a failure in the extension system and they are working to fix this.

But Hellstrom says the taskforce insists that the problems of winter grazing were caused not just by farmers.

“Farmers are almost dictated to by people in the supply chain -- particularly the banks, the seed merchants -- some of whom are snake oil salesmen -- and also the graziers. The vets give farmers good welfare advice, but even they are struggling to find the right way forward. 

“If a bank manager is putting pressure on the farmer to produce more to meet their interest payments that can be a problem. There wouldn’t be a bank manager in the country who thinks of animal welfare as a consequence of what they doing to a farmer.”

Hellstrom says the same issue applies to a corporate farmer living in Auckland who is only interested in the returns from the farm and doesn’t consider animal welfare issues on the farm in the South Island.

Hellstrom says when they looked at the grazing contracts they could not find any reference which pointed to animal welfare as being something of a priority. 

Seed merchants don’t realise that the advice they give farmers on where to put crops and which crop to use has huge animal welfare implications, he says.

“We were careful in our report to say that this is not all the fault of farmers. 

“They are slam dunked by everything that is going on around them and they need support and other people also need to take responsibility.”

Hellstrom says the taskforce is not advocating a ban on winter grazing, but says changes must be made urgently to mitigate the problems that prompted their investigation. 

The group has set key milestones to be in place next season. 

These include farmers being aware that having animals in poor grazing conditions is unacceptable and animal welfare material be included in all extension material and that farmers understand and meet their responsibilities. 

The report is also calling for better monitoring and compliance.

Minister’s view

Damien O'Connor says winter crop grazing is necessary in some regions to provide enough feed for stock at a time when there’s not a lot of pasture.

But he says farmers must have the right tools and advice to ensure animal welfare.

O’Connor says NZ’s international reputation as a provider of high quality, sustainable food depends on getting this sort of thing right, as does our social licence to operate.

“Some farmers manage this system very well but for those who don’t we’ve got to find a way of doing it better and help them do so,” he told Rural News. 

“Following the taskforce’s report, I’ve asked the Ministry for Primary Industries to work with farmers and industry groups to ensure farmers get the help they need.”

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