A shortage of doctors to treat big farm animals is hurting Haliburton County’s agriculture sector
By Stephen Petrick
Godfrey Tyler is an experienced livestock farmer and knows how to take care of his animals. But he shudders at the thought of experiencing a sudden emergency that even he can’t fix and would require a professional vet, such as a bad cow birthing experience, known to farmers as a calf breech.
“I don’t know, I’ll probably have to shoot animals,” he says, with remorse in his voice. “How do you say that to people?”
Tyler, of Waverly Brook Farm in Haliburton Highlands, is willing to paint the grim scene to illustrate the dire problem facing Haliburton County’s agricultural community; a lack of readily available veterinarians for farm animals.
The problem means that farmers have to solve problems themselves, even if not comfortable doing so, or pay impractical prices to access a vet from outside the region. Godfrey, and others who spoke to the Haliburton Echo, are calling for the provincial government and animal welfare institutions to put more creative thinking into solving what they say is a long-standing problem that affects, not just Haliburton County, but several rural Ontario regions. If not, the livelihoods of livestock farmers – the lifeblood of our food systems – will be at risk.
The loss of service
Before 2021, Haliburton-area farmers had a local vet, who could attend to local emergency calls; Dr. Aimee Coysh Filion of Haliburton Veterinary Services.
But at the start of 2021, she suspended offering on-call services to big animals and limited her practice to in-house visits. In a letter to her clients sent in Nov. 2020, she announced the decision and acknowledged it wasn’t an easy one. One of her colleagues was leaving the clinic to return to her family in Ireland. This factor, and a lack of available vets, meant the clinic couldn’t continue to offer services to farmers.
“It is unfortunate, but not many veterinarians want to practice mixed animal medicine, or do on-call,” she wrote in the letter. “Furthermore, there is a serious lack of veterinarians in our province as a whole, and many clinics have to search for a longer period of time to find one. Due to all of these factors, our situation has reached a point where we need to set new boundaries to ensure that we can continue to give the level of service to which you are accustomed.”
Attempts to reach Filion to comment for this story were unsuccessful, however sources who spoke to the Haliburton Echo did not blame Filion for the decision.
“What other discipline is available 72 hours a week?” said Gord Mitchell, secretary and treasurer of the Northern Producer Animal Health Network, which is monitoring Haliburton County’s vet shortage. “She has to have some time for herself and some time to sleep.”
The NPAHN has, for years, been working to address the extraordinary challenge of making a limited number of vets accessible to all farmers, even those who are sprinkled about vast rural regions.
The NPAHN oversees the Veterinary Assistance Program, which gives extra compensation to vets for providing their services to rural farmers in Northern Ontario regions. (Haliburton County is one of the most southern regions covered by the NPAHN) It’s worked in different ways since its inception in 1945, but it now provides vets $1.20 per kilometre they travel to attend a farm for an emergency call. This makes vets services more affordable to farmers, as they only have to pay for the service, and not additional mileage fees.
But if no local vets are participating in the program, as is the case in Haliburton now, then farmers have limited practical options.
Sources who spoke to the Haliburton Echo said there are vets from areas such as Bobcaygeon, Peterborough and Muskoka who are willing to travel to Haliburton County farms – however, those options aren’t practical if it’s a time-limited emergency.
Tyler said he knows vets in Lindsay and Bracebridge who could, theoretically, make the trip to his farm, if needed, but they would charge about $250 “before I start.” Then, they could charge $2 to $3 per kilometre as a mileage expense, because they’re not part of the VAP (which is meant for northern Ontario regions), he said.
The value of steer in Ontario has hovered around $226 to $268 per 100 pounds, recently Tyler pointed out. So, mathematically, the cost to provide veterinary services to farm animals isn’t near its return on investment if there’s a local vet shortage.
That’s the stark economic reality. But, of course, Tyler knows there’s an additional ethical and emotional component that makes the dilemma even worse.
“Every animal is a part of your life and to lose one is a tragedy itself,” he said.
The shortage of local vets is also affecting Shane Dykstra, a Minden-area farmer, who owns hogs, goats, cows and chickens. But he understands there’s challenges to keeping people in the profession.
“Why would you want to be a vet?” he says. “Have you been outside today?”
The quip is in reference to the hot weather, which makes for tough working conditions. Dykstra also said he understood Filion’s decision to no longer take emergency calls to local farms. He realizes some vets who are primarily trained to care for pets, are uncomfortable with farm tasks, like castrating pigs. Until Haliburton County sees a new influx of vets, he imagines he’ll have to solve problems himself, if he can.
But rather than scoff at the choices individual vets make, he suggests that the Ontario government and its institutions need to come up with creative solutions, as the problem is not about veterinarians themselves.
“It’s got to change at the top,” he said. “We need to get out there; we need to talk to more and more people.”
Dykstra, Mitchell and Tyler all shared that they believe more incentives are needed for veterinarians to work with livestock farmers. They would like to see the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), part of the University of Guelph, give more training and more encouragement for students to consider working with farm animals.
A 2022 report, titled Examining need, capacity, and barriers to accessing food animal veterinary services in underserved areas of rural Ontario, addresses many of the issues.
It was written by University of Guelph graduate research assistants Minerva Cancilla-Styles and Alexander Boekestyn and it quoted students who spoke to the lack of training they received on large animals. One quote from an anonymous student said, “there is a lot of great theoretical large animal knowledge taught at OVC, but we are not given the tools to actually practice large animal veterinary.”
Mitchell pointed out another factor in the large animal vet shortage is the fact that opening a practice to serve pets is perceived as far more lucrative.
“Young veterinarians are told they can command six figures, working two or three days a week,” he said.
Given all this, local farmers are looking for the Ontario government for support. They’re calling on Premier Doug Ford to work more with farmers to understand the issue, especially in rural riding, where vets are few and far between.
“It’s not a Haliburton story,” said Tyler. “It’s a policy story and it’s a policy failure story.”
“We’re so far in the mud; it would take the courage of the Minister of Northern Development or Minister of Agriculture to put up the money to have a vet present in our community.”