Winter grazing practices were in the spotlight earlier this year when animal rights activists released photos of large numbers of cows wallowing in mud after being confined in a restricted area. This resulted in the Government establishing a taskforce to look into the practice. However, farmers say the photos were taken out of context, during extreme weather, and that not all winter grazing is like this. Today on The Country, Jamie Mackay spoke to Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor about the report, and whether it is too tough on farmers.
Mackay: Damien O'Connor is the Minister of Agriculture. Yesterday a hard-hitting report - was it hard-hitting? - we'll ask him - from the winter grazing taskforce made 11 recommendations to improve animal welfare and intensive winter grazing farm systems. But not everyone's happy about it. Is the minister happy? Let's ask him. Good afternoon Damien.
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Good afternoon Jamie. Yeah, I don't expect everyone to be happy, that would be a bit much.
Mackay: 11 recommendations, what are the key ones?
O'Connor: Look I think it's just a matter of thinking about animal welfare and what we consider animal welfare, that's making sure that they're fed, is not good enough.
Actually under the last government, the issue of sentience was one that animals feel, not just hot and cold, but some kind of senses and that's written into the Animal Welfare Act now, the fact that shelter is a legal responsibility - all of these things mean that the scrutiny is on us as the farming sector - and we just have to up our game.
It's not good enough just to feed them and carry them through the winter. We actually have to look after them.
Mackay: Yeah but are some of these recommendations impractical because I'm picking up on what DairyNZ's saying and they're saying the report states farmers should always provide animals with a soft, dry, surface to lie one. Which with an outdoor system, subject to weather conditions is simply not achievable - even with the very best practice and management. You and I know that damn well. If it's pissing down with rain Damien, you can not provide a dry surface for an animal to sit down on in an outdoor system.
O'Connor: That's absolutely right because they don't have a roof over their head. So there are some of those things that we'd have to accept are unrealistic, but look the intent is to make sure that they're not lying in mud and I think that's the clear guidelines there.
So look, most of those 11 are reasonable. Most people get what we're trying to do here and if you drive around Southland and other parts of the country you'll see good practice and you'll see bad practice.
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We've just got to share the good practice with other farmers and help them. They may have to farm crops in different places, maybe a different stocking rate, they may have to have an off option if it really gets bad weather. So those are the kinds of things we're going to have to work through.
Mackay: Are you basically wanting to outlaw winter grazing of animals especially dairy cattle and beef cattle on fodder crops in places like Southland?
Absolutely not. I mean there are some farmers who do it really, really well. You see that, and so that's just what we've got to do, have good practice.
Mackay: Damien why not just be a wee bit tougher on the bad apples, because I get around that part of the country a lot and I see lots of good practice and last winter I saw some terrible practice. I should have blown the whistle but I didn't. But anyhow, why don't we just go harder on the bad apples?
O'Connor: Well look DairyNZ and Environment Southland, they said they were upping the game, teaching the farmers best practice and everyone was improving what they were doing and last winter said that, that wasn't happening.
So people were being quite kind and that is the transition to a new level of animal welfare and winter grazing practice. Wasn't going to happen overnight and again we know it won't happen for next winter.
MPI didn't prosecute because there wasn't hard oversight. Environment Southland, the vets, SPCA could've all done that. People are hoping that we move into a better space as quickly as we can.
So this is a clear report, with guidelines. Next winter maybe the crops are still in the wrong place, but the winter after, this will be policed very, very hard.
Mackay: Yeah but what do you do when Mother Nature intervenes, it's an act of God, a flood. Some of those pictures of bad winter grazing management in Southland that came out during the winter were in a flood period. They were smart enough to edit out a river one paddock over that had burst its banks in flood. So where do you put the animals?
O'Connor: You have to be reasonable. Of course you have to be reasonable. We have floods over the Hauraki Plains, we had those up there and there's mud everywhere and animals don't have options.
So you have to be reasonable, but you've also got to ensure that people are trying to do their best.
Also in today's interview: O'Connor talked about the news that UK supermarket chain Waitrose was only selling British lamb to support UK agriculture.