COMMENT:

Not so many years ago farming was in New Zealand's blood, in the sense that just about everybody had relatives on a farm or had grown up close to farms or had worked in farm servicing industries and knew what goes on.

They knew that farming livestock is not a bloodless business. Animals were killed so that humans may live. It has been so since early man hunted for survival and it continued to be so when beasts were enclosed and bred for meat, milk, wool and leather.

But in recent years a growing number of New Zealanders seem to have been surprised and appalled to discover what happens on farms.

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When animal rights campaigners exposed needless cruelty to newborn calves at one collection point in Waikato, some people were not just rightly appalled at the treatment but just as shaken to learn the calves were being taken from their mothers so quickly in order that we could have the milk.

Farmers could once have chuckled at the reaction to this, wondering where these people had been. Had urban folk imagined the milk in supermarkets was a happy surplus produced by cows after their calves were satiated? Let's not tell them about sheep farming. They would find shearing and dipping too rough, docking and tailing unspeakable.

But farmers are probably not chuckling at urban sensitivities these days. Red meat and dairy products are facing threats enough from dietary preferences without offending consumers on animal welfare grounds too.

Instead, farmers' organisations are responding with efforts to promote good livestock handling practices and modern farmers would probably agree these reminders do them no harm — it is too easy to forget docile species can feel pain.

But farmers deserve a break too. Many pride themselves on proper handling of animals in their care. Any pain they inflict is for the creature's better health and care. They are aware that consumers in Europe especially are taking a closer interest these days in animal welfare and farming practices.

Our beef and dairy farmers are rightly proud of grazing their cattle on pasture year round rather than spending the winter in sheds as they do in colder climates. But our "free range" farming may be under threat from the damage it is doing to waterways. Fencing off streams and riparian planting might not be enough to stop nitrate-rich run-off reaching them through the sodden soil of winter and spring.

Livestock farming is facing pressure to change many of its ways and knows it will need to respond. Not the least of those threats is the likely frequency of weather extremes, causing flooding or droughts.

But pasture might dry faster in spring and warmer conditions would boost grass growth while higher rainfall in the Southern Alps could make more water available for irrigation.

The outlook is not all bad for pastoral farming though horticulture is likely to displace some of it, in response to both climate change and consumer sensitivities. Plants do not suffer when harvested, as far as we know.