Dozens of people are caught abusing or neglecting their animals every year, but many are let off with just a warning.
Figures provided under the Official Information Act show most animal mistreatment uncovered by government inspectors happens on cattle farms.
Acts of animal cruelty in the past 18 months have included a farmer who broke the tails of 154 cows with a chain. On another farm, more than a quarter of its 86 ewes were found dead from starvation and related conditions. The farmer received a written warning and was not charged.
On average, the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) takes less than half of the people responsible to court. Many receive no punishment beyond a written warning or "education letter".
Federated Farmers has defended the rate of prosecution, saying there is no point punishing good farmers who have found themselves in bad situations.
But Hans Kriek, executive director of animal rights group Safe, said MPI did not pursue charges often enough.
"They only ever prosecute the biggest and the worst cases," he said. "It costs money to prosecute."
When the cases went to trial, small fines were common, even for serious abuse, with those responsible rarely serving prison time.
People were also treated far more leniently over cruelty to stock than to household pets, he said. "If 20 labradors had died . . . there would be an uproar."
With support available from MPI and Federated Farmers, there was no excuse for letting animals starve. "It takes a long time for a cow to die of starvation. It is not something a farmer can miss."
Figures show that, in the year to June 2013, MPI caught 53 people mistreating or neglecting their animals. It is the third year that confirmed cases have risen, despite the overall number of complaints dropping.
Of the 140 confirmed cases of animal cruelty or neglect in past 3 years, only 47 resulted in prosecutions. Most people received only a warning.
Of the more than 500 animal cruelty complaints received a year, the vast majority related to beef or diary farms.
The complaints cover all commercial farms, but also lifestyle blocks on which animals are kept.
Federated Farmers board member Katie Milne said there were clearly a few bad farmers who let the side down. "And we are happy to see the back of them."
However, others could easily find themselves "close to the edge" after a drought, unexpected financial stress, or personal trauma.
"Sometimes these guys get really, really distracted and they need help. They can still be good farmers again."
Other times, lifestylers mistreated or underfed animals out of ignorance, she said. "I can understand why people say it's the law . . . but it's not quite that easy with livestock."
STARVED, BEATEN AND CASTRATED
More than 140 instances of cruelty or neglect toward farm animals have been uncovered by inspectors since 2010.
❏ February 2012, Waikato: Dairy cows at the farm were so severely injured or emaciated that 26 had to be put down, one immediately. Of the 135 animals in the herd, 115 had broken tails and many had broken legs after being beaten with a metal bar. The farmer was jailed for 2 years.
❏ July 2012, Waikato: A farmer continued to run his farm bankrupt while his cows starved, many to death. He was convicted and sentenced to four months' home detention.
❏ July 2012, Hawke's Bay: A farmer illegally castrated a horse, using chloroform as anaesthetic. He was convicted and fined $1500.
❏ September 2012, Waikato: About 80 cows were left without water and inadequate food for four days. No charges were laid, written warning.
❏ February 2013, Hawke's Bay: Between 300 and 500 sheep were left with no feed in "poor body condition". No charges were laid, written warning.
❏ April 2013, Canterbury: Farmer let 22 ewes die of emaciation and related conditions. No charges, written warning and education letter.
❏ May 2013, Canterbury: About 150 dairy cows had their tails broken after they were hit with a chain case. Farmer convicted and sentenced to eight months' home detention.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Did you attend a dawn service for Anzac Day?Related story: New generation takes on Anzac traditions