Animal rights group says top dairy farmer's apology falls short

Nick and Rosemarie Bertram.
Nick and Rosemarie Bertram. Photo credit: Supplied

Animal rights group SAFE says the apology of the country's top dairy farmer was a missed opportunity to show the importance of animal welfare on farms.

Nick Bertram, along with his wife Rose, was last week named Share Farmer of the Year in the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards.

However he was later stripped of the accolade after "disrespectful" comments he had written previously came to light.

Debra Ashton, chief executive of SAFE, says New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards (NZDIA) Trust did the right thing in revoking Bertram's title, but says he never should have been given the title to begin with.

"If they're going to put someone up as a poster child for a particular industry and there's this kind of baggage sitting there that hasn't really been addressed, that's not really giving much credibility to the standards of the awards," Ashton told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Tuesday.

"You expect people who win awards to have a standard of excellence, they should be leaders in their industry and they should be raising the bar for other farmers to aspire to. Let's not start at the bottom and then work our way up, we need to start from the top and help bring other people up to that kind of standard. That's what leadership and winners are all about really."

The tweets in question - which have since been removed - were posted in 2017 and advocated what SAFE called "cruel and illegal" farming methods.

"Put a pipe up there c*** an blow them up with air. Wrks a treat they freeze to the spot and let milk down. I never tie up or use oxytocin [sic]," one of the tweets said.

"When you try and help the smart b**** in the paddock and she ends up with your calving rope," another stated.

Bertram later issued an apology for the posts saying he was "very embarrassed" by them and understood they were "highly inappropriate".

"I had made a few tongue in cheek jokes," he wrote. 

"On the most controversial tweet I did comment at the time further down in the thread 'To make it clear this not a practise that we do and I am stirring the pot'. This is definitely not a practice which we do and does not reflect the level of respect that I have for my animals."

He said animal health and wellbeing is a "huge focus of our operation and those tweets did not reflect that".

"I unreservedly apologise for these tweets and the offence they have caused. I welcome anybody to our farm, who would like to view our operation to see how we treat our animals and the high level of respect we show them."

Ashton said she had seen Bertram's apology and could understand where he was coming from but believed he did not go far enough.

"There's not a lot in there for me that really talks about animal welfare though - I mean there's a bit about 'we take animal welfare seriously' - but this is an opportunity to say from his perspective 'no, no, no all those tweets they were irrelevant, this is not me this is not how I work, I really care about my animals, I hold animals in a very high regard, I've raised the bar, I've done all these things. There's been none of that," she said.

"You really need to show, I think, if you're going to win an award, that you put animal priority as a priority - the industry needs to have that expectation of winners as well." 

Ashton said the fact that Bertram was given the award was "not a good look for the organisers and it's not a good look for the winner either".

In announcing it would strip Bertram of the award, NZDIA said it would be taking an independent review of its procedures and entry criteria.

It acknowledged that Bertram had apologised and also that some people in the industry were aware of the posts before the award was announced.

"Animal welfare is of paramount importance to the industry and the trust is committed to offering a 2021 awards programme that will showcase best practice and allow entrants to benchmark and improve their own farming practices. It is also committed to farmer welfare and will ensure Mr and Mrs Bertram are supported during this difficult time," the trust said.

In a statement over the weekend, Bertram said having his title revoked came as a "complete shock" and that he would be asking for it to be reinstated.