Keeping livestock healthy in ways that consumers endorse isn’t getting any easier for producers or veterinarians, neither of whom particularly need another challenge right now.
New campaigns by fast-food outlets to stop using meat from animals that have been treated with antibiotics are raising all kinds of questions in consumers’ minds about modern production practices. Veterinarians, out there with farmers on the front lines of livestock production, are caught up in this matter. It’s veterinarians’ job to make sick animals better. And sometimes they need antibiotics to do it…not unlike certain situations facing medical doctors when people are sick.
The public’s view of animal health is among the many issues facing veterinary college graduates entering the workforce. In Ontario, the person responsible for making sure they’re as equipped as possible for the road ahead is the new dean of the Ontario Veterinary College, Jeff Wichtel.
Wichtel arrived at Guelph this fall from the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island. His biggest immediate challenge — one that never ends, actually — is to ensure and enhance the high quality of the College’s core Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. It’s the biggest such program in the country, admitting around 120 students every year.
Rural Ontario looks to the college to, among other things, make sure the province has enough veterinarians to service livestock farms. A decade or so ago, this was a huge concern, and many parts of the country are still staying vigilant to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. But the reality is increasingly fewer veterinary students wanted to live in the country and work with farm animals when they graduated. This put pressure on the livestock sector, not to mention practicing veterinarians and livestock farmers.
But there’s been a change in the veterinary culture in rural Ontario, one that reflects not only a smaller pool of budding rural veterinarians, more also more specialization in livestock operations, fewer farms and bigger farms.
Now, in many cases, a rural veterinarian will be part of a team of specialists advising livestock farmers. One will look after nutrition, another preventative health, another facilities, and so on. That’s taken some of the pressure off the veterinarian alone.
As well, farmers have become trained to do more themselves when it comes to animal health. So, they don’t need to call veterinarians for such a range of activities as they used to, or for procedures that don’t need doing, period.
For example, at one time, a veterinarian was routinely called to a farm when a cow calved. But few calf births — about 10 per cent, according to dean Wichtel — are complicated enough to require a veterinarian. Producers can oversee the vast majority themselves. If there’s a problem, the veterinarian can be quickly summoned.
As well, preventative medicine practices have limited the prevalence of many diseases that were once common, again reducing the need for a veterinarian, and the pressure on their time and availability.
“It’s all changed the way things are done on the farm,” says Wichtel. “Farmers know their limits, but they can become competent at many procedures that once required a veterinarian.”
And a bigger role yet exists for rural veterinarians. Despite reports such as the World Health Organization’s controversial position on red meat consumption, and the efforts of anti-livestock groups to change Canadians’ eating habits, people are pursuing animal protein with increasing vigour. That’s not surprising – typically, as societies become more affluent, their members consume more protein from animals than plants.
Against that backdrop, says Wichtel, rural veterinarians have a major role in keeping the world fed, by helping keep livestock healthy. Part of that effort involves what he describes as a holistic look at animal health, to learn how certain aspects of an animal’s life on the farm — its housing, welfare, and nutrition and resistance to disease, for example — affects its overall health and the wholesomeness of food products derived from it.
And ultimately, rural veterinarians have an impact on local economies, too. Small communities across the province struggle enough now. They’d basically disappear without the support of farmers…and many farmers produce livestock.
College faculty members talk to veterinary students about these issues, in preparation for the ever-changing world that awaits them. Students get a taste of what it’s like “out there” when they engage in externships and gain field experience on livestock farms and in rural Ontario. Several Guelph interns have taken to blogging over the past few years to share their externship experiences.
“Ultimately,” says dean Wichtel, “it’s all about the students, and what they can contribute to the sustainability of our rural communities.”