Waiting for the rain:

Bushfires across eastern Australia over December have added to the difficulties and concerns rural vets have for their clients suffering from what some have termed ‘the worst drought in a thousand years’. Especially in Victoria, where Alpine fires were threatening to join up in to one massive conflagration only two weeks before Christmas, in a repeat of grim conditions from 70 years ago. In NSW, SA and Tasmania too, rural vets have been on hand to help protect properties and townships from fires started by lightning strikes and arsonists.

You can almost hear Hanrahan muttering, “we’ll all be rooned”¦”


In their day to day practices, rural vets are working with their clients – beef and dairy cattle farmers and sheep graziers — helping them formulate a drought strategy to get through the next few months until the hoped for rains in March. They are assisting them plan how they’re going to feed their livestock, source the most cost effective feed available and feed it so as to have negligible affects on animal health.

Coonamble Vet Surgery is on the central-northwestern plains of NSW, in a beef cattle, sheep and grain growing district. There are three full-time vets. The practice derives 50% of its income from production animals — 42% beef cattle, 8% sheep. The balance is from horses and dogs, again, for the most part working animals.

The practice itself covers a far-flung territory. Partner Scott Parry says “We regularly travel in a 200 km radius from the clinic. To the north we go to the Queensland border (about 250 km), and to the west we go as far as the Darling River (400 km).” The more far-flung work is almost exclusively animal production and management work — pregnancy testing, bull testing, disease investigation etc.

On the eastern side of the practice (Coonamble shire), Parry says things have improved since the really bad time in 2002. “It has been a tough year but not desperate in most of this part. There is reasonable ground cover, water supplies are OK and stock are mostly strong and healthy. Some areas east of town in particular have actually had pretty close to an average season.”

But to the west it’s a different picture.

West of Walgett to Brewarrina and Bourke the situation is as bad as it has ever been in many cases. Stock numbers are very low, pasture and herbage conditions are poor, and morale is low, Parry says.

“The toughest thing is that this is the sixth year running where there has been an extended dry period (6 months or more of poor rainfall).”

While the district has had periods of relatively good rain and good feed over the last six years, Parry says they have been relatively short (no more than 6-8 months). This has made it difficult for producers to build up stock numbers and get ahead financially.

” As usual, the smarter producers are coping better, but even they are being tested now,” he comments.

Like the other vets who had time to answer my questions, Parry notes that dry spells initially mean more work. “Producers try to run their operations in a more lean, mean efficient manner and this usually means an increased demand for pregnancy testing and bull testing in particular, as producers look to offload less productive and saleable stock.

“We also find that producers tend to look after their remaining stock well, meaning that we are called in to provide individual animal medicine and surgical services for these animals as required. Essentially they want their remaining stock to be as healthy as possible and ready to swing back into full production as soon as the season breaks. Veterinary work we can do that actually makes or saves our producers money is very important in a dry spell.”

Problems the practice is currently dealing with include pinkeye (infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitus) in cattle; prolapsed cervix/vagina in breeding cows; general sub-fertility in cattle. “Pregnancy rates for the autumn and early spring calving herds are 10-20% down on historical averages, based on pregnancy test results in the last 6-8 weeks.” Impaction and sand colic in horses is also becoming more prevalent as horses eat closer to the ground.

Dry times also mean more intensive feeding, which creates its own set of challenges and problems, such as diseases from high stocking rates, as well as the need for nutritional advisory services.

As the district has enjoyed short ‘breaks’ (wet winters) in the dry spell most years, there is paradoxically a jump in workload. During this period, stock are traded in and out of the district, agistment and droving stock appear, and a range of other animal health and management problems arise. These include more pregnancy testing, transit related illnesses and plant poisonings as stock feed on whatever fresh green growth appears.

The real value of veterinary involvement in these drought related problems, Parry says, is in the animal management and preventative medicine strategies that can be instituted. “These are more likely to save the producer money by preventing further problems and helping solve existing ones. “

If however the dry spell continues with little or no break for over 12 months, the workload will start to drop off as client morale and stock numbers drop even more. “This was certainly the case in 2002,” he comments. “We are yet to get to this level in the current phase of the drought but it could well be just around the corner.”

The practice is fortunate in covering such a large area. “It is often the case that at least part of our service area is having a fair season and providing us with a bit of work. Small animal work seems to be partly insulated against the vagaries of season until drought conditions are so severe that the entire rural economy grinds to a halt. In this case, as in 2002, discretionary spending on companion and working dogs will slow down as there is simply much less money to go around.”

Dr Jim Smith is the treasurer of the SA rural practitioners branch of the SA division of the AVA. He says the drought situation is “grim”, but adds wryly that “this is relative – I am sure that those from long-term drought affected areas would like to be in our situation! The current situation is grim both due to the lean grazing/no fodder combined with the fact that this area is known as a ‘safe’ area, and many locals do not have any real drought plan – as they have never had to have one.

Smith’s practice at Naracoorte, not far from the eastern border of South Australia, covers an area of approximately 100 km in diameter. It has four full time vets, and when he and his partners bought the practice 20 years ago in 1985, the large animal share was about 80%. Demographic changes and the end of government disease control programs such as for TB and brucellosis have seen that drop to about 30%. Now the numbers are dropping because of the drought.

“Most local graziers have been getting rid of a large proportion of their stock,” Smith says “Those that acted early being far better off as they got better prices and have had less grazing pressure since doing so.

Like other vets, the drought is affecting Dr Smith’s practice in two ways – additional work to begin with, and then a fall off in work as stock numbers are reduced – either by sale or death – leading to a drop in income.

Any extra work relates to nutrition and feeding problems as paddocks get drier and barer. “Initially we have had some extra work relating to (low) nutrition-derived stress conditions,” he says. “In the past few months we have been doing a lot of early cattle pregnancy testing allowing graziers to cull dry and even late calving cattle.”

Cattle in drought conditions near Bourke

Drought-related problems he and his team are seeing in cattle include ill thrift, infectious diseases related to nutritional stress and low conception rates in some herds. Horse work is currently unaffected but he is anticipating a higher number of sand ingestion colic cases as horses graze the bare paddocks.

Resolution of drought related problems is really a matter of long term management, Smith says. If supplementary feed is available and affordable, he advises graziers to use it. But if supplementary feeding is not possible, the options for graziers in this ‘safe’ area are to cut their stock numbers, or if they’re lucky, to agist them to a less affected area.

The drop in income is another matter, and one that will probably not ease until after the drought itself is over. The cash flow problem is particularly noticeable around the time quarterly GST payments are due, he notes. This drop in workload and associated income is likely to continue for some time, and not just for vets, Smith says. “The drop in stock numbers will severely affect complimentary businesses in the next few years.”

Timboon-based Matt Makin has a practice in southwest Victoria, mostly servicing the dairy industry for a radius of about 70 km. Apart from dairy, the remainder of their practice is mainly horses, with a few small animals. Makin says the conditions are “the most significant seen in this area that people can recall. It is having a significant effect on farm business and their ability to feed and care for their animals.” Although the district has not yet been declared a drought-affected area by the federal government, local dairy farmers are suffering due to their reliance on areas that are drought declared as areas that used to source feed.

The drought is affecting the practice workload in different ways. Many of the ‘discretionary’ veterinary services are being used less, but services that can add true value to the faming enterprise are being used to a greater extent. “The drought is forcing us to consider carefully what services we provide to clients, what they value and what they need from us to help them be successful,” he says.

Farmers are finding it very difficult to source feed for their livestock. In some cases people are feeding canola hay, which if not fed appropriately can cause significant health issues. The greater levels of grain feeding to livestock in the absence of sufficient fibre (which is in extremely short supply) can cause acidosis, which can affect production, general animal health and even cause stock deaths.

The result is lowered production levels and herd fertility and is creating significant pressure on farmers to reduce stock numbers. Over the coming months there are also likely to be issues due to a shortage of stock drinking water, Makin predicts.

“We encourage farmers to plan well ahead in regards to what they are going to feed their livestock over the coming months, and we try to assist this process through helping them formulate their diets, source the most cost effective feed available and feed it so as to have negligible affects on animal health,” he says.

“We work with clients to formulate a drought strategy that will help them survive the coming months as best they can. Having an understanding of your clients, and the knowledge, experience and determination to help them is the best means of helping them through these difficult times.”

Makin highlights the psychological aspect of the profession: “A significant part of a our job is also being someone that farmers can talk to and share their problems with. For many, the veterinary visit is as much a social necessity as it is a professional service and this I think helps them to cope. They need to share their problems and challenges and know that they are not alone. We run and participate in a number of programs and workshops to improve the ability of clients to cope.”

Will the drought deter young vets?

Parry believes so. “Rural vet practice is a tough enough thing to ‘sell’ to graduates at the best of times. In the short to medium term, drought is perceived to produce a depressed rural economy, shrinking rural populations, decreased rural services, dust storms, reduced vet workloads, degraded country and a general lack of optimism in the rural community,” he comments.

“In many respects much of this is true, so young vets will be less inclined to want to contend with these negative impacts and will avoid rural vet practice.”

Makin says rural vets need to reconsider the services they offer.

“A large number of rural practices that are heavily dependant on providing traditional single animal livestock ambulatory services or that give more attention to the small animal component of their business are going to be suffering a downturn in the production animal component of their business. The drought is placing pressure on rural veterinarians to re-think the services they provide. Rural veterinary clinics need to begin providing services that add true business value to the farmer, that focus on helping improve production and maximize animal health across the entire herd or flock.”

It is not the young vets that are the problem, “it is the employers and the local communities,” argues Smith. “Why would a young veterinarian wish to move to work in a run-down poorly equipped practice with little professional support, situated in a community that expects those veterinarians to be available full time for little recompense – I wouldn’t!

“I firmly believe that until rural community attitudes, and the attitudes of veterinary principals change, no matter how or what we train new vets will make little difference to where they end up working. Everyone wants to blame the new vets, but are loathe to be critical of themselves.”

Parry has the last word. “In reality, it usually isn’t quite as bad as the media makes out. Life goes on in the bush and in some ways the law of the jungle prevails — the strong survive and the weak perish. This pertains to farmers/graziers, rural business in general and vet practices specifically.

“If rural vet practices can provide the right range of services to a large enough group of clients they will survive the drought. In fact there will be some opportunities that will come out of it as producers turn to vets to provide practical, cost effective services, products and animal production advice to help them cope with drought.”


Supplementary feeding sheep in the paddock

He admits there will be “mental, physical and financial pain” for all members of the rural community (vets included) as a consequence of the drought.

“But for those who stick it out there is light at the end of the tunnel. Because, as everyone knows — it will rain one day!”

All photos courtesy Scott Parry

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