The issue of animal welfare has been increasingly raised in recent times. The highest profile issue has been the export of live animals by ship. Initially this was due to unsustainably high deaths on some live sheep exports which triggered a public backlash.
The result was the banning of sheep exports for slaughter 15 years ago. Since then, almost all sheep exports by boat have ceased, with the last notable one to take place going to Mexico for breeding in 2015. It was made up of over 45,000 sheep with 191 deaths at sea reported (0.45% of total). There were also 3200 cattle exported on the same shipment. Only one cow death was reported.
However, public opinion, largely driven by SAFE and with largely faulty facts, has been shaped to see the trade as cruel. This has not been helped by its earlier history when large numbers were sent to the Middle East for slaughter, far from an ideal outcome for a country that professes to have a strong record on animal welfare.
Since then, cattle for dairy farms have made up the majority of exports, as can be seen below.
|Year||No. of Shipments||No. of livestock||Deaths||%|
By far the most common destination was China with an average trip time of 18 days (the shortest was 11 days to PNG and the longest 28 days to China [slow boat]). It is worth noting that since 2019 a 30-day post arrival report has been required from exporters and this shows a similar death rate to the voyage, although over a longer period.
|30 days after arrival ...|
Source: MPI data
Perhaps of interest is a Massey study of on farm ewe deaths in the North Island of New Zealand. The range on farm is from between 2.8% and 15.7% with most years between 8% and 12%.
Given that the live shipments are to cease in April 2023 and apart from the Gulf Livestock which went down at sea with all livestock lost (it is not included in data but would have lifted the 2020 death percentage to 5.18% for that year) the trade appears to have been functioning reasonably well and while people are always suspicious of what the quality of life is in the ‘new’ country, judging by ewe deaths within New Zealand it can hardly be said things are that glamorous here for animals.
The purpose of the above section wasn’t to show how good or bad live shipments are, but to illustrate the power that public opinion has - as that can be the only reason that the Government has chosen to stop the profitable trade.
This then brings the conversation back to the farm. Basically, New Zealand farmers operate due to the social ‘license to farm’ (LTF). On the surface it may not be as blatant as that and with the disappearance of the international tourist trade for over two years, the economic importance of agriculture has been well driven home, at least for the time being.
However, pressure on government from groups who for a range of reasons, are anti-livestock farming has grown considerably over the last 5 years. This should have resulted in farms responding positively with management techniques that not only benefit animals but also look to be benefitting animals. Unfortunately, judging from what I see little has been done.
The widespread removal of tree cover in the Canterbury region for one certainly looks like a step in the wrong direction.
Climate change has motivated some scientists to look at ways to improve the lot of animals (a cynic might see it as only to maintain their production and little about animal care) with a new research project identifying the gene which identifies animals (dairy in this case) able to cope with growing heat.
Led by LIC scientists they have found that animals with the gene can have a lower rumen temperature by 0.5 to 1.0c. NIWA predictions have the Waikato region having a 50% increase in the number of days above 25c by 2040. At the moment the selected animals have -18% reduced production compared to high genetic selected animals however this will change over time.
So, this gene will help with heat stress impacting on animal performance but does not do a lot to help eliminate the public perceptions of animals ‘suffering’ especially over the winter months. In fact, in the ‘slick’ gene case for heat stress given the shorter hair on the cows coat it may be plausible that these animals are more prone to cold stress.
With the increasing move to establishing riparian strips around waterways which in some cases leading to trees and higher shrubs being planted there are some examples of shelter being established. However, these are few and far between.
At the moment farmers best way of keeping public criticism at bay, whether it is justified or not, is through the establishment of tall hedge-rows around the farm boundaries. A pragmatic response hopefully while the lot of animals improve.