Government inspectors are starting urgent checks on the welfare of livestock at farms owned by the Crafar family, amid concerns that publicity over alleged cruelty could harm overseas perceptions of meat and milk exports.

Agriculture Minister David Carter yesterday ordered Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) inspections of livestock on properties owned by the Reporoa-based Crafar family. The minister has previously said publicity over the Crafar farms could damage New Zealand's reputation.

MAF is expected to announce next week whether it will prosecute over alleged animal neglect after more than 100 calves dying of thirst had to be killed on a Waikato dairy farm owned by the Crafars, who also own 21 other farms.

Carter said Allan Crafar was willing to co-operate with the inspections. Crafar has said the killed calves were suffering from a rotavirus - which commonly causes diarrhoea - but other parties have claimed workers failed to teach the calves to drink milk from a trough.

"The Crafar operation is clearly facing some serious issues and it must face up to its obligations as responsible farmers. No farmer can shirk from these obligations," said Carter.

Green Party co-leader Dr Russel Norman yesterday suggested that the Commerce Minister, in conjunction with the Securities Commission, could appoint statutory management for a corporation that is acting recklessly, or to preserve the public interest.

But Carter has rejected government intervention and said MAF, Fonterra and Crafar's banks should work independently to deal with the family's financial and operational problems.

The Crafar family has grown its original farm to 22 farms with 20,000 milking cows, 10,000 other stock, 200 staff and around $200 million of debt with Westpac, Rabobank and PGG Wrightson Finance. Fonterra chairman Henry van der Heyden this week called for a full inquiry into the deaths of more than 100 calves on the Crafar family farm near Benneydale, but said Fonterra could only act if a prosecution was proven.

Norman claimed the death of calves came on top of convictions for animal neglect at a Crafar farm in Hawkes Bay in 2006.

A Crafar company, Te Pohue Ltd, was fined $10,550 in 2006 after pleading guilty to 49 charges of animal neglect when emaciated and dead cows were found on a Crafar farm at Te Pohue, 45km northwest of Napier.

A farm manager admitted 56 cruelty charges and was sentenced to 300 hours' community work and ordered to pay $750.

MAF had laid 844 charges against the company, Crafar, the farm manager and an operations manager, but late in the case withdrew all 333 charges against Crafar.

The farm manager later blamed poor resourcing by the Crafar partnership for the ill-treatment of stock The original raft of 844 charges was the nation's biggest Animal Welfare Act prosecution involving cattle.

Crafar has claimed that he, his wife Elizabeth, and his brother Frank are being unfairly targeted over issues such as dirty dairying and animal welfare.

- NZPA