Phil Edmonds

While the merits of introducing new environmental legislation dominated farmer conversations in 2019 another reputation-driven regulatory imposition was bedded in, namely the Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations.

They haven’t caused quite the same level of anticipated practice change as feared with proposed water and climate change solutions, but the new attention to animal welfare detail, and the penalties for failing to adhere are forcing new habits, welcome or otherwise.

So, are they working, who’s changing their behaviour, who’s bearing the cost, and what next?

First, a quick digest of what the regulations involve and where they came from.

The much-publicised mistreatment of calves kick-started the legislative re-boot, following a television documentary shown in 2015, which led directly to changes to the Animal Welfare Act.

The changes gave the Ministry for Primary Industries the ability to make regulations, which enabled it to enforce the Act with clear rules to protect animal welfare. The initial set of regulations consulted on were about live animal exports, care of animals and surgical and painful procedures. In 2016 regulations relating to young calves were introduced.

Subsequently, the Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations were introduced just over a year ago in October 2018. These incorporated the regulations relating to young calves, which sparked the initial wave of concern, but were widened to incorporate more infringements, and reflect transporter and farmer responsibilities.

Specifically, the 2018 regulations introduced infringement penalties (much like speeding tickets, that do not result in criminal convictions) for offences that cause short-term harm to animals. Those relevant to the livestock industry include ingrown horns, electric prodding as well as obligations placed on stock transporters around lame animals, those in late pregnancy, injured or bleeding and those who are exposed to backrub during transport. Infringements that are likely to cause long-term harm to animals do lead to prosecution, with significant fines (up to $25,000).

The exceptions at the time were for disbudding and dehorning, which were introduced a year later (October 2019) to give animal owners and veterinarians time to prepare.

Based on both media coverage and available data on infringements issued, there is no doubt MPI is taking its new responsibilities seriously. In fact, rather than simply rely on media interest, MPI has written media statements prepared for publication on incidents where it has successfully prosecuted animal owners for ill-treatment.

At the end of November for example, MPI released a detailed statement on a Palmerston North couple convicted of multiple charges of wilful and reckless ill-treatment of cows and calves, which resulted in a prison sentence and a $30,000 fine.

In terms of the initial impact, an MPI spokesperson told Dairy Exporter: “As the current regulations have only been in place since 2018, we are unable to identify any key trends. However, as the bobby calf infringements have been in effect for longer we can advise that there has been a decreasing trend with 157 infringements issued in 2018 and only 89 infringements issued in 2019 year to date. This decrease indicates improved compliance.”

‘In every processing plant there is an MPI regulatory presence, and they wear an animal welfare hat. If livestock are presented to the plant and there is an issue, they are there in force. It’s a highly controlled environment where the companies have an imperative to make sure everything is done right.’

So here we are. A heightened public sense of what is acceptable, with a Ministry well motivated to enforce expectations, backed by the legislative resources to do so.

But how is it working in practice?

The shift in mindset that has been forced on farmers in such a short space of time should not be under-estimated.

While it goes without saying that the breaches of animal welfare that prompted the introduction of regulations is due to the attitudes and practices of a small minority, all farmers have been subjected to adapting activities which may well have, until recently, been viewed as part of routine farming operation.

For some dairy farmers, having to dedicate more time and energy to caring for calves is likely to have been a challenge. Bobby calves, for example, have not been a priority to the business of running a dairy farm. They are not responsible for generating income, and operationally, have been treated as a resource to be quickly disposed of to allow more time dedicated to the main business. As a result, sometimes calves might not have been fed as sufficiently as they should have been or as regularly, which has then compromised their ability to stand the stresses of transport.

It is possible that spending more time with calves will have created more costs for farmers.

Farmers bearing the cost of upholding more stringent standards of animal welfare is something that is undoubtedly felt but certainly not heard. In a climate where the highest standards of animal welfare are deemed non-negotiable if our food products are to achieve premium prices in export markets, there is no appetite for dissent.

At the same time, higher standards do create higher costs.

Tighter controls around stock transport has been a cause of disquiet, particularly around not being able to get lame cattle to processing plants. One farmer said waiting for a lame cow to recover and suffering ongoing pain on the farm is hardly in the spirit of animal welfare, particularly if it is eventually killed anyway. If a cow doesn’t come right, then a $1000 ‘boner’ becomes a $40 pet food carcase. “There are thousands of cows getting pet fooded who could have easily been transported.”

Again, there is no mainstream sympathy for this potential loss of income, but for some it is yet another sore point in an environment where farmers feel like they are being overly burdened with the costs associated with demands from consumers.

In early December ANZ Bank noted farm operating costs have lifted nearly twice as much as the general rate of inflation, with its Farm Expense Price Index up by 6.1% in the two years to September 2019. ANZ said costs which have lifted the most in percentage terms are fertiliser, fuel, insurance premiums and shearing. Significant increases were also recorded in the cost of feed and the price of livestock.

The bank also said confidence remains subdued – as much for the anticipated costs associated with new standards. Environmental legislation was noted, but unsurprisingly, there was no mention of animal welfare.

It’s not just farmers affected by the broadened animal welfare regulations. Transport companies and slaughterhouses have had to lift their performances accordingly.

Meat Industry Association chief executive Tim Ritchie, representing slaughterhouses, notes that it was typically their end that faced the spotlight of poor decisions or actions on animal welfare, and as a result they’ve had an incentive to improve their handling of animals for some time.

“In every processing plant there is an MPI regulatory presence, and they wear an animal welfare hat. If livestock are presented to the plant and there is an issue, they are there in force. It’s a highly controlled environment where the companies have an imperative to make sure everything is done right.”

He’s encouraged that everyone is now committed to working together to ensure problems are fixed, and to understand where the root cause of animal welfare breaches lie.

“We don’t want to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff because it’s not good for our business and it’s not good for our reputation. If it’s a question of the animal not having been fed before transport, then that needs to be addressed onfarm.

“Animal welfare onfarm, at sale yards, during transport is all part of the same parcel. If one part of the chain lets the side down we all feel the consequence. It is absolutely critical we work together.”

Prior to the regulations coming into force transport leaders tried to educate their industry on the fines that could be issued to transporters who did not take care to prevent injuries to stock in transport, including backrub.

Road Transport Forum chief executive Nick Leggett, representing the commercial road freight industry, says “it is absolutely right that livestock should not be harmed while being carted. We aim for every animal to reach its destination in good shape.”

The fact that the regulations are still in their infancy has however meant there is still a learning curve for participants in the moving of animals.

“Prior to the regulations coming in last year some operators were already ahead of the game. They had become used to ringing farmers ahead to determine livestock heights, and then making decisions about appropriate transporting needs.”

But Leggett said the RTF is actively looking to improve understanding of issues like backrub during transport.

“We are working in conjunction with Federated Farmers to up the education of farmers, so they can start drafting out taller livestock from shorter ones and loading them accordingly.”

Just like farmers, the transport industry has had to absorb cost increases to comply, as adhering to the new regulations means companies cannot operate as efficiently as possible.

“There are two main costs. One is mitigating the risk of incurring penalties. According to MPI there has been $130,000 worth of infringement notices issued this year for backrub alone. Mitigating the risk means transporters can’t operate as efficiently as possible, as they aren’t able to cart livestock fully loaded. The other cost is that associated with making multiple trips to cart the same number of livestock, which burns more fuel, burns more tyres and means driving over the same road twice as many times as before. This is costing the farming community and costing NZ Inc with additional infrastructure costs.”

Elsewhere, the work of vets has been enhanced – both as more visible gatekeepers with their ability to issue infringement notices, and in practice since the recent inclusion of dehorning and disbudding regulations.

Earlier this year NZVA chief veterinary officer Helen Beattie reminded the industry that only vets are legally mandated to authorise non-veterinarians to use registered veterinary medicines such as local anaesthetic.

Failure to comply can result in fines from $3,000 for an individual to $25,000 for a body corporate.

Meanwhile, the momentum towards investment in ethical attributes shows no sign of slowing. As those close to target premium consumer markets will say, expectations of animal welfare standards are changing all the time, and no level of product assurance is too high.

In November Minister for Agriculture Damien O’Connor helped launch the New Zealand Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which includes founding participants ANZCO, Silver Fern Farms, Greenlea Meats, Beef + Lamb NZ, Fonterra, McDonald’s and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and has a commitment to prioritising the planet, people and animals.

O’Connor said this collaboration is “an important part of growing confidence from our global consumers who are increasingly discerning about their food choices.” Greenlea Meats managing director Tony Egan said the collaborative nature of the Roundtable is central to being able to better listen to our community voices and their views on our beef production.”

Prior to the launch an independent sustainability research project was undertaken to help determine the criteria with which the Roundtable will focus. Among the five highest-rated issues identified by stakeholders was animal welfare and ethics.

Perhaps more important than anything else, the Roundtable has signalled its inception represents just a start. For example, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef of which the NZ Roundtable is now aligned and whose principles it has adopted, notes that on animal welfare, “continuous improvement is key”.

“As a sector we think we do well, but we can always do better,” MIA’s Ritchie said. “Ethical issues are becoming more and more important in terms of product positioning, and how consumers view us, as much as the quality of the product itself.”

This message is also stated loud and clear in MPI’s 2018-23 strategy document. The Ministry notes that “While New Zealand’s animal welfare system is highly regarded globally, we cannot be complacent. National and global expectations about what is acceptable animal welfare are changing. We need to continually improve our animal welfare system in order to maintain our international standing. MPI will pursue changes in transparency, strengthening codes of animal welfare, and make sure those in charge of animals have the skills to meet their animals’ needs.”

So what does the near future hold? As indicated above, there is no visible end point in the striving to improve animal welfare outcomes.

Those responsible for deciding what comes next sit on MPI’s independent National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. This committee, which includes academic scientists and representatives from Federated Farmers, Ravensdown and the Department of Conservation published its annual report for 2018 recently, documenting its achievements and coming work programme.

The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) announced in October that the Minister of Agriculture had agreed to issue an amendment to the code of welfare for dairy cattle to address behavioural needs and off-paddock systems.

NAWAC chairperson, Dr Gwyneth Verkerk, says “the amendment sets out new standards to ensure people working with dairy cattle meet their animals’ behavioural needs and adopt high levels of care when keeping dairy cattle in off-paddock facilities, including feed-pads, stand-off pads, wintering pads, and loose-housed and free-stall barns.

“The aim of the amendment is to encourage all those responsible for the welfare of dairy cattle to adopt the highest standards of husbandry, care, and handling.”

Meanwhile, the Government is in the process of finalising a third package of regulatory proposals – these relate to surgical and painful procedures. It is likely that once completed these new regulatory proposals will be incorporated into the Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations 2018.