Where are All the Farm Veterinarians?

Reader Contribution by Carrie Miller and Miller Micro Farm
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But a farmer needs their animals, life would be dull without them. 

Where’s My Doctor Pol?

By this time, you might have had the chance to see an episode of The Incredible Dr. Pol show. My question is: Where are all the Dr. Pols?

In recent years, many farm veterinarians have come and gone from our area. With each passing veterinarian, it has become increasingly hard to find the next. Is this a localized predicament, national dilemma, or a global issue? When first moving back to rural Northeast Ohio, we looked up our original doctor (Vet 1) from years ago and reestablished a relationship with him. After just two short years, we received a letter that he was retiring from large animals. However, he continued to see our goats as long as we brought them to him for the subsequent year. The cows were a different story, because bringing them to him was a complicated task. Therefore, we sold the cows that very year.

On to Veterinarian Number 2

Shortly after, we found a lovely young farm vet (Vet 2) who was born and raised in the area and had recently commenced taking over farm calls from a seasoned vet who had also started slowing down her large animal practice. We consulted with her for about a year until one day, a crisis arose and required her assistance. With messages left for her at the office, on the farm call emergency line, and even her cell phone with no response.

Stumped by the radio silence, we did the one thing we did not want to do: We called the big corporate-owned conglomerate. They would most likely own our farm by the end of the visit, due to their price gouging. We were able to get on schedule with them for an appointment that same day. While I waited impatiently for them to arrive, I called the office of the young vet and found out that she had fled the practice. Oh god! Now what? That office had decided to close down the large animal portion of the practice without notification. Because Vet 2 had a non-compete clause, she left the area and headed to a horse practice.

Hello, Vet Number 3

The prominent corporate-owned doctor arrived on the scene, and her goat knowledge was astounding. She not only worked on our girl diligently for over an hour, but she saved her life through means I had never seen before. We are pretty sure that no other vet would have gone to the extreme measures she did, and she is the only reason our goat survived. No amount of schooling could have substituted her experience and knowledge in this situation.

These circumstances are why we need qualified farm vets. Because we were able to request this particular doctor when we needed farm calls, we decided to stick with her (Vet 3), at least for the time being. Then it happened! The big corporate-owned clinic got bought out. It did not appear like a significant dilemma since the vet we loved stayed on with them — well, until the prices of every service began to blast through the roof.

Will You Stay, Vet Number 4?

Back on the hunt for another alternative left us empty. The other farm vets we called either did not come to our area or did not take goats as patients. Contemplating shutting down the farm and business was becoming a plausible reality. The inability to make a profit with the new prices and that was without requiring any distress calls. Then a friend of a friend told us about another prospect, a vet from almost an hour away that would come over from Pennsylvania to do farm calls.

She (Vet 4) only does large animals specializing in cattle, among other varieties. Thankfully, not only is she able and willing to come to us, but she is also beyond astonishing with goats. Finding a great goat vet is a laborious task around here; most are more familiar with cattle, horses, and pigs.

Fluctuation in Pricing for On-Farm Veterinary Care

Here is an example of the differences in the cost of all four clinics.

Baby goat disbudding:

  • (vet 1) $35 visit, which included the procedure per goat.
  • (vet 2) $65 visit and $12 per goat for the procedure.
  • (vet 3) $75 visit and $130 per goat for the procedure and $2.75 per minute of their time.
  • (vet 4) $60 visit and $8 per goat for the procedure.

Though most situations, we can handle ourselves; the necessity for a qualified large animal veterinarian is imperative. Since many medications now require a prescription, there are few alternatives. The best antibiotics, steroids, pain medications, and vitamin-mineral supplements all need vet authorization.

Many veterinarians will not prescribe medicine until they have seen the patient for themselves. So now you have the price of the drug and an office visit or farm call. They fill syringes with the medications warranted, and that is it. They are no longer selling you a vial of this or that to keep on-hand for a subsequent event.

Can you love them too much? When love outways cost. 

Where are All the Farm Vets?

While doing some investigation and communicating with other farmers, the explanation seems to be a tragic reality. Rural vets work tirelessly day in and day out while handling emergencies and routine calls. They easily place 50,000-plus miles a year on their retrofitted vehicles as they track across the countryside. New veterinarians typically graduate with $170,000 to $200,000 in student loans. Veterinarians in rural practice have salaries about half of those in the cities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, without affordable vet care, farmers, and the nation’s food supply are more vulnerable than ever before.

It also means ill and infected livestock will increasingly go untested, and communicable diseases can pass from farm to farm with ease. Some epidemics have the potential of wiping out entire herds. Much like the bird flu (H5N1) and the swine flu (H1N1) did in the past.

Disease testing example:

 (Vet 3) recently quoted me the subsequent prices to have CAE, CL, and Johne’s testing done on our goat herd.

  • $75 farm call plus $2.75 per minute they are here, typically at least 30 minutes is needed.
  • $35 Caprine arthritis encephalitis disease (CAE) per goat.
  • $32 Caseous lymphadenitis disease (CL) per goat.
  • $20 Johne’s (“YO-knees”) per goat.
  • $37 Shipping fee for seven goats, mind you we have eighteen goats.

Under these prices, it would cost us approximately $1760.50 to test our entire herd through them, which is done yearly for many herds. To draw the blood and send it ourselves to the lab is $324 plus shipping for all three tests for the entire pack. The price difference seems to be the divide that is causing so many farmers to cut corners, or they are learning to do medical procedures themselves. Most farmers disbud their animals, give vaccinations, draw blood, castrate, and even diagnose and medicate when possible to avoid the high cost of calling in a veterinarian.

Internet Professionals

There are groups on Facebook dedicated to teaching others how to treat and perform medical procedures on livestock. Some of these groups are filled with inexperienced all-knowing do-it-yourselfers who are giving awful advice. In one goat group, they always suggest checking the placement of a kid in utero to ensure proper positioning. They typically follow that advice with now give them antibiotics, wormers, and pain meds since they had a rough delivery.

The only thing harsh about the delivery is them telling the owner to stick their arm up the goats who ha! Goats typically deliver unassisted and beyond that new goat owners have no idea what they are feeling or looking for, so how would they know if somethings wrong?

How Can the Problem Be Solved?

So does the problem lie with the vets, cost of school, price of medications, or something completely different? No matter the cause, how are farmers and rural homesteaders suppose to make a living? Are the consumers willing to pay more for the produced goods to help offset the inflated costs of animal care? Could states give more grants to vets to help offset the loss of rural veterinarians? Maybe it would entice up and coming vets to travel to rural America if a portion of their student loans were pardoned for their services. How can this perplexity be rectified?

Carrie Millerruns Miller Micro Farm in Ohio, where she spends much of her time canning and freezing and repurposing items around the farm in creative ways. She is a photographer and blogger forCommunity Chickens. Connect with heron Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Her writing has been featured in Grit Magazine, the Homestead Hustle Blog,Chickens Magazine, Hobby Farmsmagazine, and The New Pioneer magazine. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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