Dry run—the toll of drought on country vets

country vets and drought

It’s an especially challenging time for country vets as the drought in rural NSW takes an ever-greater toll on farmers and their animals, writes Tracey Porter.

As a country vet in New South Wales’s central west, Dr Scott Parry is well used to the peaks and troughs that come with living and working in an agriculturally-based community.

But as the impact of some of the driest conditions on record continue to bite, the usually resilient owner of Coonamble’s NorthWest Vets concedes times right now are especially tough. Quite aside from rural vets having to deal with the “extremely challenging” animal welfare issues and biosecurity concerns, there are the psychological effects of the drought that also are taking their toll on those on the frontline.

“Bare paddocks, skinny stock, dust storms, speaking to clients who are really ‘down’… The loss of hope that comes about from prolonged drought—you start to wonder if it’s ever going to rain again. It messes with your head,” Dr Parry says.

He adds that for some time now the onus has been on government and Local Land Services (LLS) vets to try to help their clients keep stock alive. 

But where hand feeding has been going on for some time, many are now actively selling stock to slaughter. 

“Having to then oversee the destruction of these animals is soul-destroying, and despite it being done for sound animal welfare reasons, there is no joy in presiding over this sort of work,” he says.

Mental strain

Dr Jillian Kelly, team leader of Animal Biosecurity & Welfare at Central West Local Land Services, agrees the duration of the drought means rural vets are paying a high emotional toll. She says every phone call involves a level of financial or emotional stress from the farmer which can’t help but transfer to the veterinarian on the receiving end with the farmer’s level of desperation and frustration tending to increase as the severity of the drought worsens.

Dr Kelly says she rarely sees a case which does not relate to the drought in some way. “It’s hard advice to give to the farmer ‘just improve their nutrition’, when they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.”

However, the problems don’t start and stop just with the psychological warfare rural veterinarians are waging. 

Money stress

Dr Parry says many rural vet practices are also being squeezed financially. While clients may be a bit slower to pay their accounts as the drought gets worse, part of being a member of the greater rural community is carrying that debt. 

Of more concern is the fact that turnover is going down, while fixed expenses, particularly wages, remain the same, Dr Parry says. 

“Just like our farming clients, the bottom line gets squeezed. The discretionary spend on companion animals decreases. Less dogs with broken legs get fixed, more of them are euthanised and so on. From a livestock perspective, we do less individual animal work as clients shy away from spending on procedures that are marginal in terms of financial return. Furthermore, the routine workload starts to wind down, simply because there is far less livestock around.”

Feed issues

From a clinical perspective, Dr Parry says the fertility of breeding flocks and herds is also a key issue as farmers find it increasingly difficult to manage flocks nutritionally to achieve reasonable reproductive rates. 

“Just like our farming clients, the bottom line gets squeezed. The discretionary spend on companion animals decreases.”—Dr Scott Parry, vet, NorthWest Vets

Additionally, managing the nutritional health issues associated with prolonged drought feeding is difficult resulting in either a consequence of too little (malnourishment) or too much (grain poisoning, and other toxicities), he says.

As the usual feed resources such as hay, cottonseed and grain have run out, producers have been forced to move to less conventional commodities such as grape marc, almond hulls, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes and palm kernel extract. These present unique risks and challenges, he says, where even if food is sourced, managing the use of unusual feed commodities can bring with it an increased risk of biosecurity breaches.

“With feed commodities coming in from overseas and interstate, we run the risk of introducing unwanted plant pest species. Likewise, with widespread livestock movements to and from agistment, the risk of introducing unwanted animal diseases to previously clean flocks, herds and districts is drastically increased.” 

Sick animals

Dr Kelly says watching the effects of the drought on good productive farms and farmers, and the future of livestock in her area, has also proved challenging to those on the frontline.

The drought has affected animal health so extensively that in some cases, hungry stock have suffered lead poisoning after resorting to licking lead batteries in search of food.

Meanwhile, nutritional deficiencies have caused immune suppression resulting in scours, pneumonia, retained membranes and pink eye; hunger has caused mismothering of newborn lambs and calves and pregnancy toxaemia; and “too much of a good thing” has resulted in grain or urea poisoning, she says. 

Helping out

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) says it is doing its bit to help rural vets dealing with the many issues relating to the drought, with members offered access to a 24-hour counselling service via its HR advisory service, and through the mentoring scheme.

In addition, the AVA’s special interest groups are helping rural vets impacted by the drought to connect with colleagues for advice, assistance and support. 

Dr Kelly says local community and other support organisations, such as the Salvation Army, have rallied together to deliver care packages and offer other types of support. Personally, she has also been able to access mental health training and counselling through LLS.

Dr Parry suggests one of the ways vets can assist those at the coalface is by investigating staffing levels at practices hit by the drought and asking how they can help.

“Those in non-drought affected practices could reach out to rural practices and see if they need locum support or alternatively if they want to off-load a vet to do a locum.” 

Dr Kelly suggests the best way to help out is by visiting a small rural area and taking in the devastation firsthand.

“If you work in metropolitan practice, make a connection with a rural veterinarian and plan a visit. Spend a few days in their practice and walk in their shoes. We need to bridge the divide—we are all one big veterinary family and need to support one another through thick and thin.” 


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