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Ask A Vet.

How to get the most from your veterinarian

By BY MADELINE BAERG

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Ask a vet … or two … or three!

Have you ever wished you had a panel of experts available to give you the inside scoop on the animal health issues that affect your farm? Have we got a deal for you! We interviewed three experienced farm veterinarians and posed some of your toughest questions to them individually. Here’s what they each had to say:

What is the single most important animal healthcare message that farmers need to hear?
Dr. Chan: All animals deserve the five freedoms that define animal welfare: freedom from thirst and hunger; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress. If you cannot satisfy those five freedoms, you should not have animals. Raising animals—whether they are pets, breeding animals, or animals raised for food—is not a right, it’s a privilege. All animals need to be treated with dignity.

How often should a small-scale farmer plan to see a vet?
Dr. de Moissac: Farmers cannot introduce themselves to me at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning. Some people expect, never having set foot in my clinic, that I’ll be available to do emergency work on off-hours. Introduce yourself and establish a relationship with a vet first so that, when the inevitable happens, you’ve got someone on your side.

A small-scale farmer has an animal that is definitely under the weather, but he’s not sure if it’s a big enough deal to call a vet. What do you advise?
Dr. Lee: Generally speaking, contact a vet the sooner the better. There’s a large variation in what each producer perceives as being a problem. Quite frequently, what new producers perceive as a problem is actually a variation of normal. Other times, we run into producers who are still learning the knack of determining health and they might wait too long, which can be detrimental.
Prey species still have some instincts telling them to hide a sickness or injury, since their ancestors who got sick or lame or ill would be seen as easy targets for predators. Having said that, they’ve been domesticated for long enough that even a moderately skilled producer who is observant and conscientious should be able to easily enough detect illness.
In some ways, the small farmer has some benefits that larger producers don’t—small farmers are more aware of how much individual animals are eating, and small herds tend to be better socialised to people and less disturbed by observation.
Most vets would prefer to be called with something that isn’t an issue rather than getting to the farm too late to do anything. I find that some farmers feel self conscious or embarrassed if they call me out and the issue isn’t a big deal. But I far prefer that to coming when an animal is already too far gone.

How can a small-scale farmer best prepare for and help a vet? What information / supplies should they have on hand?
Dr. Chan: Proper restraint and handling facilities are important and the animal needs to be ready for the vet. Some cattle producers seem to think the vet should be able to catch a crazy cow or heifer with some sort of magic potion, which isn’t the case. Make sure the animal is restrained and in a safe area. If we’re talking about a standing surgery, make sure it’s safe for the animal and the vet. Vets also need a well-lit examination area, and access to water and electricity.
If it’s a quiet animal, have a halter on her and have her tied. If it’s a beef animal, have her in some sort of squeeze so she can’t flail around—even just a head gate with wood paneling around it so the vet can get close enough to safely do an exam.
Keep a record book detailing each animal’s illnesses (including when the issue was first noticed, symptoms, and treatment), basic medical history, and any medicines given (including types of vaccines and anti-parasitics, and dates given).

What are issues a farmer might manage him/herself, and what are issues a farmer should certainly leave in the more competent hands of a trained vet?
Dr. de Moissac: Education is key. There are some things that are clearly inappropriate [for a producer] to do on their own. Some things are absolutely my job. However, if you take the time to learn, there are things you can do. Calf castration is a good thing to start with. Typically people who develop some experience can manage that on their own. Talk to your veterinarian to see which means is the most useful for your operation, and to see what other health / maintenance tasks you might be able to take on.

In this Internet age, are an increasing number of farmers self-diagnosing? Is this a good thing?
Dr. Lee: We do see more and more of that. Actually, it’s been happening for a long time with larger farmers, not because of the Internet but because they’ve got lots of animals and they see issues over and over. For decades, farmers have been slowly but surely increasing their technical skills. Some things that farmers treat routinely today are things that a vet would definitely have been called to the farm for 20 years ago.

What qualities do vets hope their clients (the human customers, not the animals!) possess?
Dr. Chan: I need someone who values my time. If you are looking for consulting, you would be best served if you made a 20-30 minute appointment so that I can appropriately answer your questions and serve you better.

How much should farmers depend on vets for preventative animal health care?
Dr. Lee: It can be a bit dangerous to think strictly in terms of preventive medicine. If animals are mismanaged—for example, if they’re not fed properly or housed properly—it doesn’t matter how much preventive care you provide, you can easily overwhelm the prevention strategies. Ultimately, returns come from paying attention to the basics. Healthy, well-kept animals are going to be most productive, and the economic returns you get from quality care [are returns] you can’t get from a vaccine.

An increasing number of smaller-scale farmers want to raise antibiotic-free animals. Is this a good thing?
Dr. Chan: Saying “I’m not going to use any drugs for anything” isn’t reasonable. Every management system has different requirements and guidelines. I’m all for minimising antibiotic use, if you can feed right, have the right space and environment, the right anti-parasitic program, etc. However, in certain cases it may be necessary to use antibiotics as a form of preventative medicine. The animal’s freedom to be healthy is a priority. I know the public is wary and afraid of hormones and antibiotics, but they are really just other tools that we use in the big picture.

What’s new in terms of farm animal veterinary care?
Dr. de Moissac: We manage pain really well in dogs and cats. Right now the thrust is really on pain management in food producing animals. It’s not an area that has received enough attention in the past. When I tell farmers that I’ll manage pain [in their farm stock], I haven’t heard any complaints at all. I find that if I offer it, producers are happy.

Is the demand for holistic / naturopathic / alternative vet medicine increasing?
Dr. Lee: I see some demand. The organic movement in the dairy industry is small but steadily growing and gaining market share. In terms of small farmers—there are a handful that I can think of in our practice that I would describe as mostly organic, though if it gets to the point that the animal is suffering by not using conventional therapies they are fine with using more traditional vet medicine. Raising organically or more naturally works really well with small farms because [producers] aren’t overly stressing the animals in most cases.
I can’t say all small farmers are doing an exemplary job—you can certainly find some small farmers who are quite poor at their craft. But, for the most part, the smaller farms I see tend to have fewer animals, more room, plenty of feed and good housing. People sometimes overemphasise the idea that these animals are raised holistically—it’s not that they are getting different veterinary care; they’re not getting any care because they just don’t need it, because they tend to have fewer health issues.

How should a small-scale farmer choose a vet?
Dr. de Moissac: All vets come out of the same type of educational frame in Canada, so the basis of everyone’s education is the same. Choosing a vet is like choosing a doctor—there are bound to be some you just don’t care for. It’s good for you to have options in most cases, ‘though there are fewer and fewer vets doing food animal practice these days, which might be a limiting factor to your choice. Choose someone who is willing to share knowledge and work together with you.
Vets run private businesses, so each one sets his or her own prices. That said, a lot of people don’t understand how much regular diagnostic lab work costs the vet when they have to send away samples to a lab, so be aware that some of the money you’re paying isn’t actually going to the vet.

What do you wish more small-scale farmers knew?
Dr. Lee: I would like to see [small-scale] farmers feel that, even though they’re smaller, they can have a successful relationship with a vet. As much as possible, I encourage these farmers to try to get a dialogue going with their vet. Figure out a way to work together that benefits both parties: that provides good advice and good mentorship for the producer and is efficient for the vet.
What is really frustrating for me is when I feel like a farmer isn’t getting a good return on investment from me. I sometimes leave a small farm feeling like I’ve charged too much for the small amount of work I was called out to do, even though I know I still actually lost money going out to that farm—especially when it’s 30 minutes of driving each way to get there. In that case, neither side is benefiting from the relationship.

Meet The Vets

Meet the vets …
Three rural vets who took the time to answer our questions

Dr. Melodie Chan, DVM, operates a dairy veterinary practice in Olds, Alberta. Keenly interested in improving animal welfare and food safety through education, she also regularly coordinates and teaches continuing education courses for dairy producers. Dr. Chan is a past-president of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners and currently serves as a director on the board of the Canadian Association of Bovine Veterinarians.?

Dr. Julie de Moissac, DVM, operates a mixed animal practice in Outlook, Saskatchewan. As she says, she looks after “pretty much anything that walks in the door.” Owners of both small (mostly dogs and cats) and large (mostly horses and beef cattle) animals have depended on her services for 24 years. Dr. de Moissac is the current President of the Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association, and has been involved in national and provincial veterinary politics for as long as she can remember.

Dr. Steve Lee, DVM, is one of eight veterinarians operating out of a mixed animal practice in Cambridge, Ontario. He deals mostly with dairy cattle and horses, but also sees sheep, goats and various other farm animals. Dr. Lee estimates that about 1/3 of his time is spent with smaller-scale farmers.

Managing vet costs Dollar-wise animal care

Having to spend significant money on vet bills is a major concern for small farmers, many of whom may have trouble affording a major animal health crisis. We asked all three vets for their help on how small farmers can best manage their animal health dollars.

Where do you currently see small-scale farmers spending most of their animal health dollars? Are they spending well?
Dr. Chan: There’s still lots of room for improvement. Some people are getting better at prevention, but it really depends on a lot of factors including where a farm is located, what type of operation it is, and what financial burdens the farmer is carrying.
For some reason, vets are still not part of many farmers’ consulting teams. If you need advice about banking or law, you would make an appointment with a banker or lawyer and not think twice. But, often people don’t think that spending the same money consulting with a vet is a priority. Consulting with a vet—maybe as little as once or twice a year to review what you’re doing—saves money [in the long run].
Dr. de Moissac: It really depends on which sector you’re talking about. In the cow-calf sector, the economy is poor so [producers] are cutting corners where they can. Sometimes [producers] get lucky and don’t run into trouble. But often they do.
Unfortunately, most people learn extremely well from mistakes. Information gathering is one thing, but unless it’s staring you in the face, the best learned lessons are usually expensive.
Dr. Lee: As a general comment, most farmers are very interested in having the kind of relationship where they ask questions and learn. I find the [farmers] who deal with us on a one-off basis get discouraged. If they call us to come out to their farm because they have an issue with a single animal—especially with [smaller animals like] sheep and goats—the cost of the visit can easily exceed the value of the animal.
The people that I perceive as getting the most benefit from me are the ones we see maybe every few months who have a handful of issues to discuss or deal with. They’ll be wanting to learn a technical skill from me that they can then easily do themselves, and they’ll generally ask a whole bunch of questions. I’ll train [them] and make sure they have the right equipment, and what they’ve learned during the visit makes the cost really worthwhile.

How can farmers best spend their animal health dollars?
Dr. Chan: 1) If you want to save money, spend money up front to minimise disease.
2) Vaccinate. As humans, we are so healthy now that we’ve forgotten why we vaccinate. Vaccinations are important. Do the entire group, don’t just pick certain individuals.
3) Don’t have tunnel vision. Antibiotics and other medicines have a time and place.
4) Don’t wait too long. Sometimes animals need medical help. Some farmers—including organic farmers—may have a tendency to wait too long if conventional medical therapy is deemed necessary to deal with the disease event.
5) If you are not an expert on what you’re raising, invest in sourcing experts. Build a network, including a local vet (or consulting with a vet from further away). Seek out specific livestock associations that can guide you. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that you get what you pay for—free advice is not necessarily the best advice.
Dr. de Moissac: Good husbandry skills and nutrition knowledge are key. Those two elements are where most animal health problems originate.
Nutrition can directly affect a farmer’s bottom line. Not feeding enough at the right time is a major problem. All animals have to be gaining weight in order to cycle. After they give birth, they lose a substantial amount of weight. If they can’t gain that back, they won’t cycle the next year—which means they won’t [produce young] the next year and that’s an economic loss.
Vitamins and minerals are another necessity. I wouldn’t say the majority of people are on top of feed supplements. The very experienced livestock producers know what to do and have been doing it for years, but the new guys can run into trouble.
Dr. Lee: Answering a question like this is difficult because every farmer’s definition of success is individual. I’d say the single biggest thing I recommend is efficiency. There’s quite a bit of upfront cost to getting [a vet] to the farm. When you think about driving time, etc., it’s pretty plain to see that there has to be a minimum cost to having a vet out. If you can try to batch as many [animal health questions and issues] together at one time as possible, you spread out the cost of getting the vet out to the farm over a number of procedures. Small producers—particularly those that are geographically close—should think about pooling resources. If two people have questions for a vet, there’s no reason they can’t do that together at one visit.

How can farmers reduce the amount of money they spend on veterinary care?
Dr. Chan: Do a risk assessment regularly. For guys with less experience, get someone in the industry to walk through your barn and be honest with you about your raising practices. Identify critical risk areas such as the way you group animals, or potential exposure to disease via other animals or from the environment.
Dr. de Moissac: It’s all about managing risk. Risk management to me is carefully considering a number of questions: What are your husbandry skills like? What are your acquisition plans? Where do you pasture? What animals do you mix? I see all kinds of operations. Some of them need different levels of intervention as far as prevention.
Dr. Lee: Find out what most important preventive measures are in your area, whether that is in terms of vaccinations or parasite control or mineral supplementation. It’s easy to view these things as just money out, but they often indirectly make you money. If money is limited, prioritise. Look for something that is the most likely to give you returns: something that reduces disease, increases growth, or limits mortality.
Try to avoid obvious risks, like auction marts and trucking long distances with other animals. Buy older animals that have better immunity and that are carrying a bit of extra condition rather than young animals that could be more sensitive to stresses.
To me, a benefit of having a small farm is that you don’t need to make huge investments in preventative vet medicine, provided that you pay attention and manage your risks.