With mycoplasma bovis currently off the media radar, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything in Dairyland is under control.

You'd be wrong. If you know what to look for, the signs of an industry under severe stress are revealing themselves.

With calving in full swing, farmers will be facing endless worries while being physically fatigued. Such a combination can be a recipe for trouble. For both animal and human.


A few weeks ago New Zealanders were collectively sickened at the secret cowshed footage showing a contract milker striking cows with a metal pipe. Outrage was swift, and the man lost his job, his home and, hopefully, any future career dealing with animals.

Read more: Rachel Stewart: Ministry's cunning plan fails to stop M. bovis cattle disease
Rachel Stewart: Why I love cows and you should too

The industry spoke with one voice. The man's actions were roundly condemned, and it proved to be an effective response. It shut the story down relatively quickly. Those of us familiar with the industry also know that animal abuse - of one form or another - is a problem. And, just like domestic and child abuse, no one wants to acknowledge it.

A desensitisation to abuse naturally occurs when cows are left on muddy paddocks with no shelter, bobby calves are routinely slaughtered, and cows are constant breeding machines. Yet we all act like this is normal.

I'll stop short of arguing here that the entire global dairy farming production model is cruel and inhumane to cows and calves - and many a sound case has been made over the years on that score - but I will say that on-farm abuse and welfare breaches are far from unusual.

In the dairy sector, there are few incentives to report animal welfare breaches. Veterinarians are caught up in the same moneymaking vortex as their clients.

They know certain things are happening on-farm but why ruin a good business relationship by reporting it? I'm not saying reporting never happens, but it is infrequent. Silence works best for everybody. It's the Kiwi way.

It's also true that when somebody does get the courage to blow the whistle they're quickly ostracised in the rural community and, in a number of cases, have lost jobs as a result. Also, contacting the Ministry of Primary Industries can mean nothing actually happens, as was exactly the case in Northland - at least up until the most recent footage emerged, and by which time the media was all over it.


So, what lies behind a farmer taking their frustrations out on his or her own stock? Their own livelihood? Putting my own repugnance for animal abusers aside, these questions have to be asked if we hope to find any solutions to a largely hidden happening.

Humans and animals and environment all intersect. Multi-level stress is just a staple of the industry, and particularly right now. The bucolic, lush green fields and ideal family lifestyle that Fonterra promotes, is to me so far from the reality that it falls into the category of false advertising. I'm not saying there can't be the odd perfect dairy day out there but, generally, it's a slog.

On top of that, the industry is not bursting at the seams with people who are emotionally equipped for the level of stress they're now having to face. To be fair, why would it be?

What with dairy politics, climate change, animal disease, debt and cashflow worries, regulatory uncertainty, and mistrust of Government agencies - the list is a never-ending feast of fear.

So why not get out? Frankly, if it were that simple, many would be doing just that. And a few will see that another way of life is possible.

Land values are holding, particularly in areas where water rights are established and high nitrate leaching is permitted.

But what about the farmers who want to change to a more ecological system? Well, right now they are locked into a structure where, say, fertiliser reps advise them to do nothing radical. Listen to the science, they say, but only their science.

What if the farmer is serious about having fewer cows, and wants to find a different way forward? Some farmers have already worked out that they can drop their stocking rate, and still make the same money, while leaching less nitrogen and with lower off-farm input costs.

Are the banks in tune with this? DairyNZ? Fonterra? It appears that the whole agri-business community and their leaders are out of step with what their clients actually need. Trying to find a way to transition to something more ecologically sustainable in the long term pits a farmer up against a massive machine geared to eternal growth.

Swimming against the tide is never easy. But if farmers don't find a new way forward soon, and get help to do so, they'll feel more isolated and alone than ever. Just them, the cows and their despondency. A formula for both animal and human suffering if ever there was one.


If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666