Fonterra, Federated Farmers, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Government need to take urgent action to stop cruelty in the dairy industry.

TVNZ's Sunday programme on November 29 broadcast shocking covert footage of cruelty on Waikato dairy farms. The pictures showed calves being tossed into a stock truck as though they were sacks of potatoes, deliberate and repeated kicking of calves, and animals being thrown down onto concrete.

The abiding impression from the footage is of sheer brutality: not one speck of humanity was displayed by those working with the animals, and they seemed indifferent to the fact they were dealing with living beings.

The pictures were shot on 10 different farms, so these are not isolated events or one-off cases.

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We were already aware of the issue of cruelty in the dairy industry: there have been multiple convictions of dairy farmers in recent years for deliberate tail breaking. Some farmers have been convicted of breaking dozens of cows' tails. In other cases, it has been more than a hundred.

The Sunday footage showed more realities of the dairy industry. To produce milk for humans, cows need to be kept continuously pregnant. This is done by artificially inseminating them once a year, so they are perpetually pregnant and lactating.

Cows are milked twice a day, 224 days a year. This places huge stress on their bodies, leading to agonising mastitis and lameness from standing on concrete pads. The animals are also subjected to painful procedures such as ear tagging, tattooing or branding.

Cows would normally live for up to 20 years, but their bodies become exhausted by the constant cycle of pregnancy and milk production. Most will begin producing less milk after five years, at which time they will be slaughtered.

Calves are considered to be of little value to the dairy industry. They are removed from their mothers at one day old. This is despite the fact that cows, like humans, are mammals who are pregnant for nine months and then bond strongly with their off-spring.

Female calves may be kept for breeding and milk production, but bobby calves are regarded as surplus by-products. Every year in New Zealand, around two million calves are slaughtered at four days' old.

The bobby calves are placed in metal pens in the hot sun while waiting to be collected by stock trucks and taken for slaughter. They may not be given any food or water for hours, before being tossed onto large trucks. The footage showed some calves being left uncared for in a pen for over eight hours.

When pictures were broadcast last year of a New Zealand farmer on a New Zealand-owned farm in Chile hitting bobby calves on the head with a hammer to kill them, New Zealanders were shocked. The Government moved swiftly to change the law to ban the killing of calves by hitting them on the head.

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Let's have similar speedy action to put an end to the cruelty revealed in the Sunday footage.

Our Animal Welfare Act requires people working with animals to attend properly to their welfare and to ensure that their physical, health and behavioural needs are met. The Ministry for Primary Industries is responsible for monitoring and enforcing animal welfare. However, it prosecutes in only a tiny fraction of cases. MPI has received numerous complaints of animal cruelty in recent years - including video footage of deliberate brutality to animals.

In almost cases, it has taken no enforcement action. In 2014, MPI investigated 128 Canterbury farms (both dairy and other farms) and found emaciated cattle and animals left sick, lame and without veterinary care. Only five prosecutions were laid - or less than four per cent of the cases investigated. This matches the pattern nationwide. In almost all cases, farmers are simply given pamphlets and a talking-to.

If MPI cannot do its job, it is time to establish an independent Commissioner of Animal Welfare. The sole purpose of the role would be to pro-actively monitor and enforce animal welfare. The Government would need to provide proper funding to enable the commissioner to be effective.

We already know that our economy is dangerously over-reliant on the dairy industry. We also know that current methods of dairy production are not environmentally sustainable.

We need to focus on leading the way in green and cruelty-free food production. Industries built on environmental degradation and brutal treatment of animals are sunset industries, not our future.

Let's take immediate steps to put an end to the cruel practices revealed by Sunday - as well as being bad for the animals, they are damaging to New Zealand's international reputation.

And then let's focus on diversifying our economy so that it is sustainable and not riding through constant boom and bust cycles, depending on whether dairy prices are high or low.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and journalist and the co-ordinator of Animal Agenda Aotearoa.
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