MOST cases of animal cruelty on farms are linked to underlying human problems that come to a boil in tough seasonal or trading conditions.
In most, authorities are able to work with farmers to turn things around quickly when identified early.
For that reason, the best defence is for neighbours, and rural communities, to watch out for each other.
That is the thinking of Agriculture Victoria chief veterinary officer Dr Charles Milne, who says while the number of prosecutions being made under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act involving farmers is a complicated trend, it has, over the years, increased.
His comments come in the wake of significant fines handed down in two separate Victorian cases in the past fortnight to farmers convicted of charges including failure to feed and provide veterinary attention to cattle.
Two to three animal cruelty prosecutions involving livestock were now being made on average every month in Victoria, he said.
However, it was largely season-related.
“Last year, over 1000 welfare cases were reported to us,” Dr Milne said.
“This year, we are running at about half that.
“Over time, though, it is increasing.
“Historically, we wouldn’t see as many reports coming from the farming community but that is quite common now.
“There has been a culture change where poor animal welfare is not acceptable to the industry - a very positive sign.”
With regards to the factors leading up to cases of livestock herd neglect, Dr Milne said there were some common alarm bells.
“In the majority of serious welfare cases there is a human issue behind it - age, financial or marital problems, drink or drugs,” he said.
“These problems come to a height when difficult conditions arise. In good times, the environment will hide them but in hard times, people are caught out.”
Those trigger factors exist right across Australia, and overseas too, he said.
“Look after your neighbours, keep an eye on them,” Dr Milne said.
“Be aware of what is happening, both on your own property and those next door, when times are hard.
“A helping hand may prevent an animal welfare problem in the first place, or identify one where further help can make a big difference.”
Prosecution was “a very last resort” and very few people were deliberately cruel, Dr Milne said.
“One of the things to really like about the Australian farming community is the number of small family businesses but they are perhaps more susceptible to these types of problems - they are often without a huge amount of resources,” he said.
The latest prosecutions
A Kyabram dairy farmer was fined $35,000 in the Shepparton Magistrates Court last week for failing to provide feed and veterinary care to his cattle.
Veterinary officer Sarah Hall told the court the herd of 116 cattle were found in an emaciated condition, with a number of cattle dead or too weak to stand.
Dr Hall said the pasture available to the cattle was insufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the herd, which included pregnant cows and calves.
Agriculture Victoria officers euthanased a number of cattle that were down and unable to rise.
In her submission to the court, Prosecutor Courtney Cameron said a strong message needed to be sent to those involved in all aspects of farming enterprises that the welfare of their animals must be the cornerstone of their business.
A week earlier, a Tragowel farmer was fined $50,000 with conviction for 27 aggravated cruelty charges and three cruelty charges in the Kerang Magistrate's Court.
The farmer pleaded guilty to charges of failing to provide his cattle with proper and sufficient feed, a safe watering point and failure to provide veterinary or appropriate treatment to his cattle.
Dr Milne said officers involved in the this case found two herds of Shorthorn cattle in an emaciated condition, a number of cattle dead, some stuck in a muddy channel and a number a cattle that had died while calving.
“The paddocks had little or no pasture and the cattle were solely reliant on the farmer providing supplementary feed,” Dr Milne said.
During sentencing, Magistrate Michael King said the expectation was that farmers would regularly check cows who were calving and not leave them to experience ‘extreme’ pain.
Magistrate King told the farmer he could have sought assistance, downsized his herd or sold some cattle.
The farmer is also subject to a five-year Control Order to monitor his farming practices.
Dr Milne said farmers have an obligation to care for animals under their control.
“Proper and sufficient feed, and a safe watering point must be provided. If animals are unwell or are having trouble calving then veterinary treatment or other appropriate attention must be given, allowing cattle to die giving birth is not acceptable,” he said.