A new homesteader's most unexpected—and most tragic—expense is too often the cost of a veterinarian's services. In the first year that I kept animals, I spent more money having my livestock "doctored" than I've spent on my own medical needs in a lifetime.
As you might expect, much of this expense came as a result of my inexperience, but fortunately there are ways that first-time farmers can cut their vet bills.
Vets Aren't All Alike
While you shouldn't arbitrarily carry your critters to the area's most inexpensive vet, there can be considerable discrepancy in the fees that various animal doctors charge. If this is the case where you live, your neighbors have learned "who's worth it and who ain't" . . . so, before you do anything else, ask them for advice.
Many times, a livestock vet won't be esteemed so much for his or her general veterinary practice as for some specialty. I've come to rely on a local man for most of my livestock's medical needs, but—when my horse needs attention—I use a doctor in the next town who's known to be excellent with such critters. On top of that, if one of my Airedales gets sick, I take it to a small animal clinic in the city, which has better facilities . . . easy access to a lab . . . and the kind of expertise that comes only from daily work with pets.
So look around. If your animals' health problems can be solved by one vet . . . good! But the most important thing is for you to feel sure that all your beasts are getting the best care you can provide.
Before the Vet Arrives
Veterinarians may not charge by the hour . . . but you can bet that the more of their time you take, the more money the visit will cost you. You should, above all, know what you've called the doctor for. And be ready to describe—over the telephone—what appears to be wrong.
Save time, too, by having the patient ready before the vet gets there. Don't wait until he or she arrives to chase down the animal. Of course, it's not always possible to pen a sick brute in a well-lit barn, but if you can put the animal indoors, make sure a good light is available. Have a halter ready, too . . . or a hog snub, or a twitch for a horse. And remember to provide warm water, because if nothing else the vet will need to wash his or her hands. In other words, try to be prepared with whatever equipment might be needed for any medical development.
You should also have your livestock records on hand. A listless dog with a high fever and no appetite that's been vaccinated for distemper, for example, will be diagnosed differently from such a beast that hasn't had the vaccine.
When the cause of an animal's trouble isn't immediately apparent, take its temperature regularly and keep a record of it until the vet arrives . . . so you'll be able to tell the doctor whether it's steady, rising, or falling.
Finally, make the animal as comfortable as possible and avoid causing it any more stress than is absolutely necessary. Be prepared, within the scope of your knowledge, to assist the patient in any way you can.
How to Avoid Vets
The amount of aid you can give your livestock will increase with your experience, and you should constantly try to learn more about caring for your animals' health. Castration, vaccinations, worming, and normal births are typical things that the successful homesteader should eventually be capable to manage without professional aid.
It follows, then, that a good veterinary guide is a must in any farm's reference library. I keep two: an up-to-date volume and another—from the 1930's—which provides a little insight into homesteading before the days of agribiz and factory farms. There have, however, been many advances in veterinary medicine since that time (notably the use of penicillin), so an older book should never be considered the final authority on treating animal diseases.
Prevention, though, is still the best medicine . . . and nothing is as important as giving your beasts good food, exercise, and lots of sunlight. Provide a dry, clean place for them to sleep . . . keep their food and water pans clean . . . and rotate your pastures, so animals won't walk in manure or have only ground-level grass to eat.
The Medicine Chest
As you become more knowledgeable in medical matters, you'll accumulate more and more equipment . . . but start keeping a veterinary cupboard now and fill it as you learn. Be sure the name, address, and phone number of your vet (or vets) are placed in a prominent location, along with a small notebook and pencil for jotting down observations about your animals, treatments you've tried, etc.
Then lay in the following supplies: a wash pan . . . a rectal thermometer . . . antiseptic for wire cuts, scrapes, castrations, and so on . . . petroleum jelly . . . adhesive tape . . . cotton and cotton swabs . . . antibiotics (calf scour tablets, for example, or powdered tetracycline for poultry or pigs) . . . isopropyl alcohol . . . soap and towels . . . disinfectant for cleaning infected areas and tools . . . hypodermic syringe and needles . . . a marking pencil to keep track of animals as they're vaccinated ... a good rope, harness, twitch, hog catcher, or whatever restraining devices are appropriate for your livestock . . . and animal health records, which should cover each critter (and litter) you raise and include vaccination, illness, breeding, and birthing dates. In short, your livestock files should contain everything from each animal's health history to its production record.
Even After All This...
No matter what you do, though, you're still going to need the help of a veterinarian from time to time . . . to treat a cow with indigestion, a sow in trouble at farrowing time, or a horse down with colic. Such problems, and others, will plague even the most careful homesteader.
And, when you do get that vet bill, be satisfied in the knowledge that you did all you could for your charges. Then, settle down with a copy of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small (St. Martin's Press, 1972), which—besides showing you the vet's side of the problem—will give you a lot of laughs at a time when you really need them.