Are farm vets a dying species?

A look at the challenges facing large-animal practices in regional Australia, and at how practice owners, vet schools and industry are responding to them. By Merran White

These days, the vast majority of vets work with small companion animals in urban areas, while mixed and large-animal practices—most of them regionally based—find it difficult to recruit or retain skilled vets. “It’s harder to get any vets—recent grads or experienced—into country large-animal practices,” says Mark Eagleton, owner of veterinary recruitment service VetLink. “Many start off in mixed or large-animal practices but find it’s a hard, challenging role, so they drift back to the cities. A big reason is that few city practices require after-hours work.”

Dr Debbie Neutze, policy manager with the Australian Veterinary Association, says the issue’s not that large-animal work’s unrewarding. “The issues that make it difficult for rural doctors and dentists are the same for veterinarians: real or perceived limited social opportunities; work for their partners and schooling for their families,” she says.

“These issues make it increasingly hard for any rural practice to attract and retain veterinarians.”

What these practices can offer vets, along with a diverse range of patients, is a slower, simpler, healthier lifestyle; cheaper real estate; space for growing families; and being on nodding, talking terms with everyone—including customers.

For city-bred vets, these pluses are typically outweighed by perceived negatives. But for those raised on farms, a rural large-animal practice is a natural fit.

Large-animal vet ‘brain drain’?

Dr Kathy Webb, owner and principal vet at Nanango Country Vets in regional Queensland, knows just how hard it is.

Raised in country towns, Webb married a Nanango grazier with a cattle property. She loves “the country lifestyle” and the diversity and challenges of large-animal work, but says city-trained vets can find it a challenge.

“I’ve worked mostly on my own for 23 years,” says Webb. “My practice is only one to two vets at any time, and I can only speak from my experience. I have had some keen and promising new graduates come in over the years but I’ve found it difficult to support them in permanent positions so that is one reason that they move on.

“I get the odd new grad or locum coming through, working casual, part-time or full-time, but they aren’t always keen to do after-hours work for award wages, and can sometimes struggle to handle jobs after-hours like calvings, colics and stitch-ups. It is also very difficult to find a suitable locum that can handle both large and small animals.

“Dealing with clients and jobs solo after hours can be also daunting to the inexperienced veterinarian,” she admits. “Often the young vets prefer to move on to small-animal practices.”

Dealing with clients and jobs solo after hours can be also daunting to the inexperienced veterinarian. Often the young vets prefer to move on to small-animal practices.”—Dr Kathy Webb, Nanango Country Vets, QLD

In agribusiness, where “it’s all about the economics”, there’s little room for sentiment. “I got called out the other day to a sick, heavily pregnant cow. She was dying, and the risk was that the calf would be lost too. There was nothing I could do to save the cow. I just said, ‘Alright, take a clean shot and I’ll cut the calf out’. In the end, the farmer got a live healthy calf to rear. Such action, though done humanely, can be confronting. Young vets need to be able to cope with that in the bush,” Webb says.

Her practice hosts UQ vet students who provide greatly appreciated assistance in the workplace, while gaining valuable experience. “Occasionally I will ask the odd one whether they would consider coming back to work here. Mostly, they already have decided to become small-animal vets and want to work in the cities where there’s better pay and hours. They don’t have to do rostered after-hours as emergency after-hours centres are available in bigger centres, so they know there won’t be clients ringing at 2am.”

The large-animal ‘brain drain’ is exacerbated by the fact that vets in small-animal-only practices don’t get to hone their large-animal skills, “which means there’s only a small pool of experienced vets with that skill set”, Eagleton says.

“It’s tricky,” he admits. “Do large-animal practices need to offer more incentives? Probably, yes.”

The bottom line

Those who can offer financial sweeteners. “Many rural practices pay higher wages as an incentive to attract employees,” says AVA’s Dr Neutze. “Unfortunately, unlike doctors and dentists, vets have no health-department incentives to help.”

Larger practices may offer incentives such as half the call-out fee for after-hours jobs, Webb notes, but sole practitioners may not be able to afford to pay more than award, which is the usual hourly rate plus an on-call hourly fee.

Equine practices may be better placed to attract and retain vets: equine is a popular large-animal specialisation. However, factors beyond practice owners’ control can undercut profits.

“The Hendra virus issue, whereby vaccination rates are low, has impacted our bottom line. Treating sick horses and doing dentals has become more complicated biosecurity-wise, and owners ring around looking for a veterinarian who they hope will treat without testing or requiring HeV vaccination. This is disappointing, as horses are one of my special interests,” Webb says. “Small animals—70 per cent of our work—actually keep the practice profitable and have always done so.”

On the upside, pig and cattle prices are up, and cattle call-outs are increasing, she notes. “With beef prices so high, they’re getting us back more often to do pregnancy testing, bull semen testing, examinations and calvings. I’m even seeing sick calves again. With prices so low for the last 20 years, graziers have been reluctant to call me out for a calf valued at $20 or so.”

Ag-animal education

A solution may be to set up regionally-based veterinary courses focused on agricultural and large-animal work. The Veterinary and Animal Sciences School at NSW’s Charles Sturt University is a pioneer in this regard.

Since 2005, its School of Veterinary and Animal Sciences has been actively recruiting students with a demonstrated interest in working with large and production animals, with preference given to applicants from rural and farming backgrounds.

“Graduates who’ve grown up in rural environments tend to adapt to the lifestyle more readily.”—Professor Glenn Edwards, School of Veterinary and Animal Science, Charles Sturt University

According to Glenn Edwards, Professor of Veterinary Surgery and hwead of CSU’s School of Veterinary and Animal Science, the idea began with a 2003 review by Peter Frawley, commissioned to address Australia’s future animal-health needs and the roles, availability and capabilities of rural veterinarians to meet them. The review identified that ‘rural veterinarians have to contend with rising costs, a reluctance of producers to utilise their services, long hours, limited social opportunities and schooling for their families’.

“These factors all impact on the willingness of veterinarians to live in rural areas, create local shortages, and could lead to a chronic shortage of production animal veterinarians,” Professor Edwards notes. “In part as a result of this review, the Veterinary Science course at CSU commenced in 2005 and has already achieved our vision of providing veterinarians for rural Australia.

“This has largely been achieved by our student admissions process, in which students are selected to enter the course based on their background and commitment to rural industries and communities.”

The “rigorous” process, including an interview, ensures high-quality students, with selection criteria including “a high level of academic ability, a background and commitment to rural industries and communities, an understanding of the unique ethical and practical issues that confront veterinarians involved in rural practice and animal production, and the capacity to communicate effectively in this environment”.

It appears to be working: employment rates of graduates within one year of graduation have remained high, with 88.3 per cent of graduates in 2015 and 94.3 per cent in 2016 in full-time employment, according to QiLT data. Graduate and employer surveys confirm a high degree of satisfaction with course outcomes, and demonstrate that most graduates are finding satisfying work in rural and regional Australia.

“The veterinary course [is now] recognised as a key part of CSU, which was established in 1989 to train graduates for the needs of rural and regional communities throughout Australia, and has grown to become Australia’s largest regional university,” Professor Edwards says. “I think as an educational institute, we’ve got this nearly right, but we do depend on our strong, ongoing relationships with industry and rural practice partners.”

Other institutions with regional campuses are following suit: Professor Edwards points to the new veterinary schools at Adelaide and James Cook universities as having “a similar goal of training rural and regional veterinarians”.

Meanwhile, he suggests, large-animal practices keen to retain good staff might want to seek ‘country-bred’ vets.

“Many graduates from city-based universities have a desire to enter large-animal practice but return to the city within a year or two due to long hours; relatively poor remuneration, in some cases; and a lack of social activities and opportunities,” he notes. “Graduates who’ve grown up in rural environments tend to adapt to the lifestyle more readily.”

Dr Kathy Webb plans to take his advice. “Next year,” she says, “I’m going to try to recruit a vet from one of the rural universities, who I’m hoping will have more interest in staying locally.”

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