The Kiwi cows costing people their homes

A number of Sri Lankan farming families are facing ruin after investing in a fresh milk scheme involving New Zealand dairy cows which cost more than $5000 each. Farah Hancock reports.

Subhashini Kadurugasyaya and her family had high hopes for a sustainable future when they bought into a dairy scheme promoted by an Australian live animal export company. Today their farm resembles an animal hospital as they struggle with sick and dying New Zealand heifers.

“It’s not just money. They took our lives also, and the future of our kids and the health of our parents,” Kadurugasyaya told Newsroom this week.

She describes her family as a middle-class agricultural family.

“My parents had just enough money to give us a good education, not save money for us.”

The family is now so heavily in debt their house could be repossessed.

The heifers are some of the 5000 cattle sent to Sri Lanka as part of a deal between Wellard Rural Exports, an Australian live animal export company, and the Sri Lankan Government.

Another 15,000 are supposed to be exported as part of the scheme. It was hoped the cows would reduce Sri Lanka’s reliance on imported milk powder.

Of the 5000 cows sent by ship to Sri Lanka, 2000 came from New Zealand.

In their first year in Sri Lanka, 95 cows from the New Zealand shipment died along with 331 from the Australian shipment.

The exporter blames farm management issues for deaths.

Since arriving on Kadurugasyaya’s farm the cows have exhibited ill health. One died the day after arriving. A further six died within six months. In total 17 of 66 cows have died. The remaining cows often need medicine, don’t produce much milk, and struggle with pregnancy.

The family’s debt is increasing daily, but for cultural reasons killing or selling the animals for meat is not an acceptable option. They’re trapped trying to keep the animals alive.

The family have two adjacent farms raising cattle and ornamental fish. The farms had previously won awards as the best small-scale farmers in their district.

Kadurugasyaya and her sister-in-law both have outside jobs to make ends meet. Kadurugasyaya works as an engineer far away from the farm in Sri Lanka’s capital. Her sister-in-law is a nurse.

“Since we were award-winning, Wellard Company came to us with Government people and introduced this scheme.”

The scheme’s goal was to reduce Sri Lanka’s reliance on imported milk powder by importing 20,000 pregnant heifers from Australia. These cost $5118 each. The Sri Lankan Government subsidised the cost by paying $3412 per cow and the farmer paid the remaining $1706.

Wellard would provide technical support for six months to ensure the farmers learnt enough about dairy farming to be successful. For Wellard, the deal was worth over $112 million.

Kadurugasyaya said the family already had some jersey cows which produced 10 to 15 litres of milk per day. She said Wellard told them they would get at least 20 litres of milk from the imported cows

If they agreed to build sheds to supplied specifications, they would be eligible.

It sounded like the opportunity the family had been waiting for. They agreed to buy 66 cows, “We didn’t have enough money in hand, we had to mortgage land and what properties we had.

The dream sours

Kadurugasyaya said the heifers came straight from the ship to the farm without spending time in quarantine. All the heifers were from New Zealand.

She said they appeared weak and dehydrated. Some were unable to stand. The family immediately purchased medicine for them.

“Some cattle started dying in front of our eyes, together with all our hopes.”

From that day on, which Kadurugasyaya said was May 14, instead of focusing on making a profit, the focus shifted to keeping the animals alive.

The family had to build a shed for the cows before they were eligible to be part of the scheme.
Photo: Subhashini Kadurugasyaya

Kadurugasyaya estimates the family has lost $17,000 to $22,000 per cow.

As part of the scheme farmers were required to follow Wellard’s farm management for the first six months. During this time 17 cows died.

They nominated the brand of cattle feed, how much corn and how much grass.

The family had cultivated grass but had to buy corn and the expensive dry food.

The cost of food under Wellard’s plan worked out at 50 to 60 cents per litre of milk and when availability was low some farmers paid up to $1.70 per litre.

In comparison, the cost of feeding local cattle is closer to 30 cents per litre.

Milk sells for around 50 cents per litre.

Kadurugasyaya said they fed their cows the food ration Wellard had stipulated for a full year until the cost became too much. They then gradually changed it to the same ration as local cows.

The change made no difference to milk production of around 12 litres per cow, a far cry from the 20 litres they were told would be the minimum.

The cost of looking after the cows has meant the families have been unable to maintain the ornamental fish business. The salary from Kadurugasyaya’s city engineering job is the only thing keeping the cows, and her family alive. Mounting debt has driven her to payday lenders.

She said she knows of 12 other farmers in a similar situation and said all needed immediate assistance.

“They don’t even have money to feed the cattle, but no one can let the cattle die. They are borrowing and spending money.”

What Wellard say

Export of the remaining 15,000 cows is on hold while Wellard negotiates with the Sri Lankan government.

A statement published on Wellard’s website suggested farmers not following the “prescribed herd management advice processes” were to blame.

It said many of the deaths from the Australian shipment occurred on four farms.

“This has been the source of immense frustration, as those farmers are ignoring advice, particularly on nutrition, and animal health is falling to the point of mortality,” said Wellard executive chairman John Klepec.

A consulting company responding to Newsroom’s questions on behalf of Wellard said all the farmers were made aware of the cost and amount of food in a handbook and as part of training. However, it said the cost increased due to Sri Lanka’s currency losing value and a drought.

Post mortem examinations were conducted for each cow which died in the first six months, however, these were conducted by the Sri Lankan government and Wellard does not hold the results.

A quarantine release document was supplied which said there was no exotic disease risk found in the heifers. It said the animals had been quarantined at “different quarantine places” for 30 days.

damning report on the scheme was published by Sri Lankan auditor-general Gamini Wijesinghe in 2018.

“Since 2008 warnings had been given about the suitability of imported cows and their short lifespans, low fertility and susceptibility to disease. Despite this another 2500 cows were imported in 2013 as part of a pilot programme. None of the farms the cows were placed on reached the promised 20 litres of milk per day.”

A feasibility report for the 20,000 cows was based on incorrect milk production figures and an incorrect cost of food. The farms involved in the pilot ran at a loss. The auditor-general found: “It is observed that the dairy farmers and also the parties who take relevant decisions had been misled.”

No further exports from New Zealand are expected.

New Zealand’s live export review

A review of New Zealand’s live export trade is underway.

Agricultural minister Damien O’Connor has indicated a conditional ban on cattle is an option on the table.

“The continued export of cattle may be a risk to New Zealand’s brand. The time has come to rethink this area and consider whether it’s something that fits within our values as a country.

“When animals leave New Zealand we set conditions that are considered world-class by veterinarians. But there have been incidents over the last few years that highlight the fact that once animals leave New Zealand we have very limited ability to ensure their wellbeing when they reach their destination.”

New Zealand’s live cattle exports were worth $30m last year.

Animal welfare advocacy group SAFE spokesperson Marianne Macdonald wants a ban on the live export of farm animals to any country which does not have the same animal welfare and slaughter standards as New Zealand

“One of the things which is particularly bad about the Sri Lankan situation is that there are cultural restrictions on euthansia. That meant dying cows were left to suffer even if the farmers wanted to get vets in to euthanise them.”

She thinks a ban on cattle exports is not enough.

“It ignores the millions of other animals exported every year. These include sheep, goats and day-old chicks.”

What can Kadurugasyaya’s family do?

A future ban on live exports won’t help Sri Lankan farmers trapped with sickly cows.

Kadurugasyaya said her family is Buddhist, and the selling of animals for meat is discouraged. Sri Lanka also has many Hindu people who do not eat cows.

She would like the sick cows put down humanely.

“We are asking them [Wellard and the Government], just pay back our money. Whatever the losses which happened to us. Then we’ll ask the government to do a euthanasia process based on the findings of which cows are diseased.

“We can struggle. It’s not a new thing for us in life to struggle. Since the beginning we were doing that, but we are not ready to accept anyone’s mistake again.”

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