OVER-THE-COUNTER sale of sheep pain relief medication would reduce already low producer engagement with veterinarians and represented a biosecurity risk, Victorian vet Dr Andrew Whale told the 2022 MerinoLink Conference yesterday.
The south-west Victorian vet outlined the risks he saw for Australia’s animal welfare reputation, exotic disease capabilities and market access by eroding producer-vet engagement through efforts to re-schedule sheep pain relief for sale free of veterinary oversight.
Dr Whale is the president of the Australian Veterinary Association’s sheep, camelid and goat veterinarians division.
He told the conference he was trying to raise some awareness about the current lack of relationships between the average sheep producer and veterinarians.
Dr Whale said told the conference participants that was on their “team,” having sold his interest in a vet clinic to invest in farming. His operation now sells about 400 White Suffolk rams annually, trade cattle and sheep, and reverts blue gum country for grazing. He is still employed by Livetsock Logics at Hamilton in south-west Victoria.
“Yes, I am a vet, but I am more interested in agricultural land and making money from livestock and I guess I am just trying to get that point across that I’m actually on your team rather than just trying to push the veterinary wheel barrow for the day.”
“I reckon it is really concerning when we’ve got things like Foot and Mouth Disease on our door step and I also think it’s a concern when we talk about our trade and animal welfare in Australia.
I think that (animal welfare) is good, but it’s not that easy to convince other countries when we don’t actually have a professional body that is in contact with commercial producers.”
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Industry bodies are making it hard for sheep vets
Referring to the industry efforts to re-schedule pain relief products to allow over-the-counter sale rather than via vet-only prescription, Dr Whale questioned “why leading industry bodies continue to make it really hard for us veterinarians to make money out of sheep production.”
Dr Whale said there is currently very limited opportunity for veterinarians to engage with average sheep producers, although he recognised that some people have an excellent relationship with their vet.
The limited opportunities for engagement led to vets generally having a poorer understanding of livestock businesses.
“I’ll take ownership of that but I represent the Australian sheep vets and I think at the moment we probably don’t have the knowledge base that we had 30 or 40 years ago.
“But if you back 30 or 40 years ago there was a lot of funding to keep private vets in contact with producers.”
This included via local laboratories, such as at Wagga and Hamilton where diagnostic services were offered free of charge, but now had to be paid for by producers.
“I guess it leads to ineffective diagnosis and poor management outcomes for producers because they don’t have contact with a livestock expert.
“Ultimately it leads to a lack of relationship between livestock producers and veterinarians, and I think that’s concerning.”
Dr Whale said the continual push for over-the-counter sale of pain relief medications would lead to a lack of income opportunities for vets and reduce the opportunity for engagement.
He said a survey of 20 mixed animal veterinary clinics across Australia – Jerilderie, Holbrook, Wagga and Camperdown – showed that cats and dogs make up 57 percent of income, cattle 29pc, horses 6pc, sheep 4pc, goats 1pc and others 3pc.
“The point I am trying to make is it is bloody hard for vets to focus a lot of time and energy into sheep and understand a lot about sheep when there is very little dollars coming in the door.
“I suspect this audience perhaps wouldn’t be that upskilled when it comes to dairy production, because it is not part of your business model,” he said.
“So I’m really just trying to raise the awareness around this.”
Overseas vets are held in higher regard
Dr Whale said vets are also held in higher regard overseas than they are in Australia.
“They are involved a lot more in terms of what products are actually dispensed and used.”
He said in Europe most drenches are sold through vets.
“I’m not saying that’s the way we to go, it’s probably not that surprising when drenches are also actually probably our biggest cause of residue in Australia.
“When we think about some of those things, perhaps there are some problems with the way we sell our products.”
Dr Whale said European countries in many ways, set a higher standard of animal welfare.
“Not only are (vets) they actually selling the pain relief, they are actually supplying and administering the pain relief to animals.
“Now again, in Australia, I am not advocating for that at all; we don’t have nearly enough vets to get around and lamb marking and mulesing treatments,” he said.
“But I’m just making the point that there is some real differences in the way that we operate compared to our trading partners — those that we are competing with and those that are actually buying our product.
“I guess ultimately what I am advocating here is a closer relationship between vets and farmers,” he said.
Should Australian vets be dispensing pain relief?
“There is a continual push for it to be sold without veterinary oversight and I’m asking the question: “Are vets to our red meat industry?
“Because if they are, the current way that we are removing any opportunity for income for vets, we are making a pretty big statement that it is unimportant and we don’t actually want them to be involved in our sheep production,” he said.
“If we continue that same trend, I think we will just continue to drive a bigger gap between vets and livestock producers.”
He said there is a clinic at Horsham that is refusing to do anything with sheep and cattle.
“It’s too hard for them to hire vets with the skillset to do everything, whereas if they just say it’s small animals only, they can still attract people to work there.”
“So ultimately when we think about our current livestock industry at the moment, which is absolutely flying, but we have threats of disease like Lumpy Skin Disease and FMD just over the seas, we’ve got a pretty exposed livestock industry when we don’t have contact with the people that are likely to be able to diagnose it, and reduce its spread, as well as the people that are probably most likely to be the people we call up on to help eradicate it.”
The animal welfare risk in no vet relationship
Dr Whale said vets are being told that they shouldn’t be selling pain relief medications so as to increase its availability, and that they are unavailable because vets have to have a relationship with a producer to dispense the products.
“That’s saying that the majority of producers don’t have a relationship with a vet, therefore they can’t get pain relief.
“How much would our trading partners like to get a hold of that?”
He said it was “scary” to consider what trading partners or animal rights groups might think of sheep pain relief in Australia not having veterinary oversight in the future.
“I think we can do better and we can improve this, but do we want to, are we happy that that might be the language that might be coming out of Australian sheep production in 5, 10, 15 years’ time?”
“Ultimately again, we are just not providing a business case for vets to be involved in sheep production.”
Dr Whale said with Tri-Solfen currently not available, sheep producers were probably realising that the cheapest forms of pain relief come from a vet, with savings of probably up to 30pc by using a product like Metacam. He said Metacam gave a couple of days’ pain relief for mulesing compared to Tri-Solfen’s four to five hours.
“So we know that that is really a great product for mulesing, but it’s really hard for us to get traction and communicating that with the wider audience when we don’t actually have that relationship with vets.”
He said Gudair and Tri-Solfen did not become cheaper when it went from vet-only prescription to over-the-counter sale.
“I’m a vet, but my motivation is the Australian agricultural industry and I’m scared about how we are going to be able to deal with an emergency animal disease in 5, 15 years’ time.
“Hopefully it is more than that, it could be a lot less,” he said.
“I am just trying to raise awareness that we are forcing our rural veterinary clinics to become more and more focussed on the cats and dogs, and less on sheep.
“Let’s think about that when we are having these conversations about pushing these products over the counter,” Dr Whale said.
“Let’s get a disease here, can you convince vets that have no exposure to sheep to drop their fee-paying clients, which are the cats and dogs in town, to go and support an industry that is fairly clearly not supporting them at the moment.
“How can we expect to eradicate a disease without an army to fight it?”
Dr Whale said there is a new generation of vets coming through that are keen to be a part of the livestock sector, but it was difficult for a clinic owner to justify professional development investments for a staff member in an area generating a low percentage of the business’ income.
“I reckon we can really change that space by filtering this money from pain relief through vet clinics and having professionals in regional towns that are really keen on sheep production.
“I reckon the small cost of a vet on your property is a great safeguard to our industry and the profits of high value farm land at the moment,” he said.
“And do we want sheep pain relief, although as I said, it won’t be cheaper, or do we want longer term disease security in Australia?”
In 10-15 years, Dr Whale said he would like to see every producer in Australia have a relationship with a veterinarian.
“I reckon that is pretty gold marketing when it comes to handling some of our animal welfare-type people as well as our trading partners overseas.
“Vets can actually make some money for sheep producers, I think that would be an important part of it.”
Better relationships would also improve livestock services and on-farm management of other sheep diseases, and producers using vet–approved pain relief would generate stronger market claims on animal welfare and aid biosecurity, he said.
“I f we start to think about which way we want to head in the next 5-10 years, we can make some potential changes in that relationship between sheep producers and vets.
“Do we want vets to be involved or are we happy with them sort of vacating the sheep production space?”