North Canterbury farmer John Dalmer has been fined $17,500 and ordered to pay court and inquiry costs of more than $60,000 for letting his stock starve.

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and animal welfare officials visited Dalmer's farm in July 2006 after a complaint about the lack of feed for nearly 4000 sheep. They said the animals were "grossly underfed". Four cattle and 380 sheep had to be euthanised.

Dalmer's case was one of two MAF prosecutions last year over mistreatment of livestock.

In the other case, a Central Hawkes Bay farmer was fined $12,000 and ordered to pay almost $10,000 in costs after a complaint over starving animals.

He was also disqualified from owning or controlling production animals for at least 10 years.

This followed a 2007 investigation by MAF and animal welfare which revealed deer and cattle in poor condition, grassless paddocks and no sign of supplementary feed.

Twelve dead deer were found.

MAF got 689 complaints about the mistreatment of livestock in the first 10 months last year, resulting in 615 investigations.

It said prosecutions, of which there were two last year and none in 2008, were a last resort. It generally focuses on educating and working with farmers.

In 2008, there were 948 complaints in total, of which 824 were investigated.

SPCA chief executive Robyn Kippenberger said there were more cases than MAF recorded. She said there was a difference between wilful neglect and people going through hard times causing their stock to starve.

"It's a few that give a bad name to the rest," Ms Kippenberger said.

The starving of stock jumped to the forefront of national interest last year after Crafar Farms, one of New Zealand's largest farming companies, was placed in receivership, owing about $200 million.

This followed allegations of animal neglect after more than 100 starving calves were put down.