Tending to the flock

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

veterinarians sheep farmers
Photography: fieldofvision-123RF

Clinton Street Veterinary Clinic hit the road this August for the second year running to build relationships with local sheep farmers, while satisfying their schedule 4 obligations. By Meg Crawford

Against a backdrop of increasing scrutiny when it comes to dispensing schedule 4 drugs in the veterinary industry, Dr Lloyd Varga, the principal vet of the Clinton Street Veterinary Clinic, and the clinic’s Dr Ellen James launched ‘farm visit month’ in 2020, an ingenious program to satisfy their regulatory requirements, without putting local farmers offside. 

While the legislation across the country differs in name, the gist is the same when it comes to schedule 4 drugs, including local anaesthetics, antibiotics and strong analgesics. Specifically, veterinary practitioners must take all reasonable steps to establish the therapeutic need of an animal and appropriately document the clinical justification for prescribing medication. When it comes to large animals, it means that a vet must have a bona fide relationship with the herd, including a thorough knowledge of current health and treatment status. 

So far, so straightforward. Except that when it came to Dr Varga’s experience of sheep farmers, there was a reluctance to establish the bona fide relationships that would enable him to dispense the drugs. That’s a real issue for a practice like the Clinton Street Veterinary Clinic, which is based in Goulburn, NSW—a concentrated sheep-farming region. 

“It’s a cost thing for sheep farmers,” Dr Varga says. “Sheep are not as valuable as cattle. Given their monetary value, most farmers aren’t going to get us out to deliver a lamb or do a pregnancy diagnosis. Unless lots of animals are dying, they don’t call the vet. They’ll look to other people for advice. That’s partly because we don’t fill the main medications sheep farmers need, which are mostly vaccinations and worm drench. They get those from the feed store, so they tend to talk to the people at the feed store more frequently than they do us. In contrast, with cattle farmers, we’re out there more frequently.” 

Before the introduction of farm month, Dr Varga hadn’t come across a workable fix. “I hadn’t found anyone who had a good solution about how to be stricter with clients, without turning lots of clients away,” he reflects.

We’re definitely able to give better advice to farmers this way. We’re building a rapport with them, so that if they have questions they ask. Also, if they’re buying medication from us, we can make sure it’s been used at the correct doses.

Dr Ellen James, Clinton Street Veterinary Clinic

So Drs Varga and James decided, if the flock won’t come to you, you go to the flock. In the lead up, they sent a letter out to each client in their database to let them know what day they’d be visiting nearby, and invited farmers to register interest. A practice nurse then scheduled visits from furthest to closest Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in August, a traditionally quieter month, along each main arterial out of town (there are eight in Goulburn). By batching visits together, they dispensed with travel costs and charged a reduced flat rate of $50 to visit each property and assess sheep herds. “We’re definitely able to give better advice to farmers this way,” Dr James explains. “We’re building a rapport with them, so that if they have questions they ask. Also, if they’re buying medication from us, we can make sure it’s been used at the correct doses. 

“Before we started this program, lots of farmers would just be giving one dose of penicillin to sheep, and thinking that would fix them. It just doesn’t. A one-off injection of antibiotics only lasts for 24 hours, and isn’t going to fix anything. So, we’re doing our job better. Here’s a good example. The other day I did a farm visit and found out that the farmer was using his son’s human prescription medication on the sheep. For the first time, I was able to give him some advice about why that wasn’t working—it’s an oral antibiotic and it’s just killing off good bacteria in the sheep’s stomach.”

In light of the minimal fee and the rapport they’ve been building with clients since the first year, the program is well received. “For the most part, farmers understood why we had to do it,” notes Dr Varga. “Most of them took it up fairly well and while maybe not super warm to the idea, they were understanding when we explained where we were coming from. This was the best solution we could come up with—it’s cost-effective for them as well as us, but we’re also making it easy for them. As for when we got there, some farmers were initially a bit hesitant, but some have embraced the opportunity to just talk to us about things like genetics.”

The program has also had a pleasing knock-on effect. “Now that people have met me and they’ve seen that I’m interested they actually call and say, ‘Ellen, I’ve got a ewe and I think she’s got mastitis’, or ‘She’s had the lambs, but there’s a smell’, or ‘The ram’s lame’,” Dr James reflects. “They have been having these issues before, but they just weren’t calling us.”

Plus, relationships with the farmers are warming. Dr James saves her favourite story for last.

“I went to see a farmer who I’d say was relatively isolated. Last year, I went out and he was a bit grumbly. This year, I went out and he said, ‘Oh, take a seat on the veranda’. It was raining, I sat down and asked how he’d been. He told me, ‘I’ve had the best year I’ve had in 30 years’, and he was genuinely happy to see me. That was really, really nice.”

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