By Connor Lynch
WINCHESTER — Once upon a time, about half of the veterinarians at the University of Guelph’s agricultural college were coming from farms.
Now, those coming from farms are fewer than 10 per cent.
As his generation of baby boomers retires over the next decade, Winchester-area veterinarian Dr. Glenn Smith said farmers are going to feel a squeeze. Rural practices are having a difficult time attracting livestock veterinarians, and practices are consolidating. Farmers wanting to have a vet handy should prepare to pay more and make life easier on their vet with good handling equipment to keep them safe.
According to data from the 2016 Census of Agriculture and the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, there were about 28 livestock farms per livestock veterinarian in the province in 2016. “It’s hard to make a business with that,” he said.
Smith, who works at Dundas Veterinary Services, said he’s merged with two other practices in the last 10 years to keep the case load up. He’s fortunate: There’s a critical mass of livestock farms in his area, giving him enough work for his business to grow. Not all vet services are so lucky.
That may not sound like much of an issue, except that rural practices are having a difficult time attracting veterinarians in the first place, he said. Clinics compete like hockey teams to attract the best candidates. A large animal practice means hours on the road and is more physically demanding compared to the attraction of a small animal operation 10 minutes from home where the clients come to you.
Fewer veterinarians are graduating knowing what being a livestock veterinarian entails. School marks can be a tremendous barrier to prospective vets. “If you don’t have an 86-98 average, they won’t even look at you.” With fewer and fewer applicants coming from rural areas, the motive or opportunity to get hands-on experience with farm life has diminished.
Smith loves his work, but it is demanding, and for him, a lifestyle, not merely a job. His children know when he takes a different route home than usual, it’s because he’s stopping in at a farm on the way. “For us, it never ends.” It’s quite a difference from his urban contemporaries who don’t have to be on-call.
It can be dangerous work too. Smith is due knee surgery after a beef cow nailed him two years back and it tore the cartilage in his knee. Even preg-checking dairy cows can wear you down; a cow that’s swinging back and forth hauls on the arm and shoulder muscles. “The wear and tear on shoulders is incredible.” Carpal tunnel syndrome is common amongst livestock vets.
Better-equipped farms offer less risk to the veterinarian. Farms that take care of their veterinarians are going to be to keep them around. “We’re a perishable commodity. We know who takes care of us.” But farmers over the next decade are going to feel more and more of a pinch if they aren’t willing to invest in protecting their veterinarian. “The guy who doesn’t have handling equipment?” Veterinarians won’t want to risk injuring themselves for him.
But apart from trying to keep your veterinarian healthy, farmers should be willing to pay for the often more-expensive medications from the veterinarian’s office. Buying elsewhere, he said, is tacitly saying that you don’t want vet services in the area. “Vet fees, a lot of it is related to the medicine we’re dispensing. But there is a cost to having us deliver 24-hour service. People say, ‘Well, I can get that drug cheaper elsewhere.’ Great. Will they also come out to your farm at 2 a.m. for a prolapsed uterus?”
Added Smith: “It’s the best job in the world. I get to drive around, and meet really nice people. (Farmers) really are the salt of the earth.” But the squeeze on the small-town vet is only going to get tighter in the years to come.