Whangārei farmers kept poorly fed, emaciated cows – court

By Shannon Pitman, Open Justice multimedia journalist, Whangārei of NZ Herald

The farm in Poroti, near Whangārei, where cows were discovered to be in poor condition.

The farm in Poroti, near Whangārei, where cows were discovered to be in poor condition.
Photo: Supplied/ NZ Herald/ Google Earth

Underfed cows on a Northland dairy farm were in such poor condition that some had ingrown horns, bottle jaw and eye infections. One was so emaciated and unsteady on its feet that a vet recommended it be euthanised.

Now the owners and sharemilker have been found guilty of failing to ensure the animals were provided with proper and sufficient food.

Nearly five years after charges were brought, the farm owners, who have three decades of experience, are nearing the conclusion of an animal welfare case after being found guilty.

Murray and Sandra Gentil own a 275-hectare dairy farm with about 420 cows on Whatatiri Road, Poroti, where Graeme Smith was contracted as a sharemilker for nine years.

All three were charged in 2019 with five charges each under the Animal Welfare Act for failing to ensure that cattle on the farm were provided with proper and sufficient food, to which they pleaded not guilty.

A judge-alone trial was held in the Whangārei District Court before Judge Taryn Bayley between March and June 2022 and August 2023. Multiple witnesses gave evidence, including veterinarians, dairy farm consultants and Ministry for Primary Industries inspectors.

Dairy farm consultant Kim Robinson said she noticed from the roadside that the cows were in “very poor condition” and alerted the ministry, which visited the Gentils on 8 August, 2019.

MPI inspector Helen Doughty and vet Brian Lowe inspected a range of herds being kept in paddocks that were noted as low in feed, patchy or swampy after recent weather events.

Body condition scores (BCS) were conducted, with 83 of the animals scoring 3.0 and overall 14 were below the code minimum standard of 3.0.

One scored 2.0 and was emaciated, unsteady on its feet and recommended for euthanising.

The milking herd was reported as being fed silage along with one to two hay bales a day, which Lowe noted was insufficient to maintain milk production without further weight loss.

Other cows had ingrown horns, bottle jaw, an eye infection and possible bovine viral diarrhoea.

Two notices were issued to the Gentils under the Animal Welfare Act, requiring them to prevent or mitigate the suffering of animals. The notices specified supplementary feed was to be given, including a large increase in silage bales each day, palm kernel feed, fertilisation to 50 hectares and the euthanisation of several cows.

Robinson gave evidence that the average rate of production in Northland for a milking cow was 330-340kg of milksolids a season. The Gentil cows were producing only 210kg.

When the new feeding regime was implemented, Robinson said there was a “sudden and significant increase” in production and it was her opinion there had been underfeeding previously.

The Gentils met all conditions and, when the monitors returned to the farm in 2020, the herd was reported to be in “very good condition”.

In a recent reserved decision released to NZME, Judge Bayley found the Gentils delegated the responsibility of feeding to Smith but, as experienced farmers, they should have regularly checked the condition of their stock.

“Any animal with a BCS below 3 is a welfare concern. While 14 animals are the subject of the charges, an additional number of cattle in the herd (83) were of a lower BCS. That was a significant portion of the total herd,” the judge said.

That suggested a lack of adequate feed was the cause.

She found Murray Gentil’s evidence at the trial to be unreliable and inconsistent.

“I find that there was an effective abdication by Mr and Mrs Gentil of their responsibility to check on the condition of the overall herd to ensure that they were receiving proper and sufficient food, given their variable needs and earlier pasture growth.

“I do not accept Mr Gentil’s position that sufficient food had been provided to the herd.

“All local farmers would have faced the climatic conditions, including the earlier drought, that the Gentil farm encountered. Practical steps were available and several of those were referred to in evidence at the trial,” Judge Bayley said in her decision.

Brendon Mikkelson, MPI regional manager of animal welfare and compliance, said there were many reasons why people broke animal welfare rules.

“In Northland, there have been some recent cases before the courts that have involved older farmers who appeared to not have the motivation, capability and succession or alternative care plans in place to properly maintain the welfare of their animals. This issue is not specific to Northland and reflects the importance of careful planning.

“Our first response to animal welfare issues is to ensure the animals are being properly cared for, and that generally involves education and support for farmers. Where this does not work, and for higher-level offending, we move to direction and prosecution.

“MPI strongly encourages any member of the public who is aware of animal ill-treatment or cruelty to report it to the MPI animal welfare complaints freephone 0800 00 83 33.”

Judge Bayley found the Gentils guilty of four charges and Smith guilty of three. They will be sentenced in May.

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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