Twenty-two cows had to be put down after sharemilker Tony Kuriger, son of National MP Barbara Kuriger, failed to treat their lameness. Cat MacLennan explains why lameness is a serious problem in NZ. 

Hundreds of thousands of cows and sheep in New Zealand suffer from lameness, but most cases are undiagnosed and untreated, meaning animals endure prolonged pain.

Seventy-four cows needed veterinary care and 22 had to be euthanised after sharemilker Tony Kuriger failed to properly treat their lameness on a farm at Hukanui in the northern Wairarapa.

Kuriger, the son of National MP Barbara Kuriger, was given instructions by veterinarians on how to care for the animals after their injuries were first discovered and treated. Some cows required amputations but Kuriger did not remove their bandages when he should have done, with one animal suffering a severe maggot infection as a result.

Kuriger was convicted of wilful ill-treatment of the cows under the Animal Welfare Act. He was last week ordered to pay veterinary and report costs of $4060, and Oxbow Dairies Ltd was fined $30,000.

The maximum penalty for wilful ill-treatment of animals is a jail term of five years or a fine of $100,000 for individuals, or a fine of $500,000 for a company. Judges also have the power to disqualify those convicted of ill-treatment or neglect from owning or caring for animals in future.

No banning order was made in respect of Kuriger, so he is free to continue farming.

Lameness is a serious problem among New Zealand farm animals but is seldom acknowledged and is often left untreated. Lameness can cause severe pain, restrict animals’ movements and prevent them from displaying normal patterns of behaviour.

The Ministry for Primary Industries in a 2017 paper said industry groups had raised concerns that lameness was endemic in New Zealand’s national sheep flock and there was likely to be a significant level of underreporting in relation to the transporting of lame sheep.

Lame sheep should not be transported as the injury increases the pain and trauma of transportation. Imagine the agony of being forced to stand for hours on an injured leg, trying to maintain balance on a stock truck and being forced to put weight on the sore limb.

MPI said that there were approximately 30 to 40 cases of lameness in sheep identified at processing plants each year. However, research undertaken by the ministry in 2013 found that 1 percent of all transported sheep displayed lameness.

Extrapolating that 1 percent to the 24 million sheep slaughtered each year indicated that 240,000 sheep could have been transported while lame.

In relation to dairy cows, most lameness studies relate to intensive housing dairy systems in Europe and North America. Research results may also differ significantly depending on whether entire herds or only samples are surveyed, and on the method used for scoring lameness.

However, in Australia, a study of 63 pasture-based dairy herds between 2011 and 2014 found an average incidence of 18.9 percent lameness, ranging from a low of 5 percent lameness to a high of 44.5 percent in the worst-affected herd.

The research concluded that the risk of lameness was largely influenced by cow handling as cows were brought up to the milking shed, and by the degree of crowding in the holding yard prior to milking. Scenarios in which cows lifted their heads and pushed sideways increased the risk of lameness. Good animal handling could accordingly significantly reduce lameness.

A 2019 Australian study reported an incidence of 3.8 percent lameness among 50 dairy herds. The researchers said that, on Australian pasture-based farms, where cows might walk several kilometres a day and stand for several hours in a crowded concrete yard while they waited to be milked, the potential for lameness to negatively affect animal welfare was an ongoing concern. 

The paper noted that large herds of more than 500 cows with long milking durations of three to five hours were increasingly common in Australia, meaning that scoring lameness in entire herds could require significant effort and resources.

The research also compared the results with farmers’ lameness estimates, finding that farmers diagnosed only 20 to 25 percent of the lameness revealed by formally scoring the whole herd. That outcome matches 2014, 2016 and 2019 New Zealand and Australian studies which respectively reported that only 27.3, 27 and 24 per cent of lameness was identified by farmers.

United Kingdom research over 25 years has reported that lameness is one of the most significant welfare problems facing dairy cows, but few improvements have been made in that time. In 1996, the incidence of lameness on United Kingdom dairy farms was calculated to be 20 percent. By 2010 it had climbed to 36.8 percent. In 2015 and 2016 research was carried out on 61 dairy farms to update the statistics by mobility scoring 14,700 cows. 31.6 per cent were found to be lame.

Separate statistics calculated the incidence of lameness among United Kingdom dairy cows as being 22 percent, meaning 420,000 cows might suffer from lameness at any one time.

In addition to the severe animal suffering caused by lameness, 2009 research estimated that lameness cost the United Kingdom dairy industry £127 million a year through decreased fertility and milk yield.

In New Zealand, a 2014 study found farmers reported that between 0 and 20 percent of their dairy herds were lame, with the mean being 2.2 percent. However, objective testing reported lameness rates of between 1.2 and 36 percent, with a mean of 8.1 percent. In 2019 there were 6.3 million dairy cows in New Zealand.

Although reported lameness rates vary widely, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of New Zealand farm animals suffer from lameness and that it continues to be under-diagnosed and under-treated.

So what can be done to reduce this animal suffering?

The main cause of lameness in sheep is foot infection associated with foot-scald and foot-rot. Wet weather pre-disposes sheep to developing infections as a result of foot damage and skin inflammation. Sheep hooves need to be inspected and trimmed regularly to prevent them from becoming overgrown. Foot baths help to prevent infection.

It is disappointing that the Government had the opportunity in 2018 to take a tougher approach to the transport of lame sheep when the Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations 2018 were prepared, but chose to continue to rely primarily on education of farmers despite being aware of widespread non-compliance.

In relation to dairy cows, hoof programmes have been created in several countries. These include the United Kingdom’s DairyCo Health Feet Programme, the Dutch Hoof Signals, New Zealand’s Healthy Hoof Programme and Australia’s Healthy Hooves initiative.

Lameness is increased by wet or unhygienic conditions, walking over stones, poorly-maintained tracks, and requiring cows to walk long distances. A key risk factor for lameness is impatience in cow handling. Trying to hurry cows results in them bumping into each other, losing their footing and experiencing foot injuries. Cows should be allowed to move at their own pace.

There also needs to be far greater monitoring and detection of lameness, and significant penalties for failing to treat it. In the Kuriger case, his lawyer Susan Hughes QC said that the property on which the cows lived had a history of lameness as the races were not properly maintained. Hughes told the court that previous sharemilkers had lame cows and Fonterra records showed that the new sharemilkers had the same problem.

Ms Hughes said that Kuriger had contacted veterinarians, DairyNZ’s Early Response Service, Fonterra and the Ministry for Primary Industries to seek help. She also said that her client had sought to have the races fixed and MPI could have compelled the farm owners to carry out this work.

This appears to show widespread knowledge of the animal suffering and little action. It is an indictment on our farming practices that so many organisations could be aware of the cows’ suffering, yet nothing was done to end it speedily.

Judges continue to impose very lenient sentences for animal cruelty, and seldom make use of banning orders to prevent those who ill-treat animals from working with them again.

There is a long history of cruelty to farm animals in this country and the people and organisations who could end it seem all too willing to instead stand by and do nothing.

*Cat MacLennan is the convenor of Animal Agenda Aotearoa

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