New Brunswick

Lack of veterinarians leaves northern New Brunswick farmers to own devices

When his cow started showing signs of distress during her pregnancy, Restigouche County beef farmer Jim MacCurdy had to think fast.

Rural farms with livestock are being left without regular veterinary care

The history of the MacCurdy farm in Point La Nim in Restigouche County goes back to 1851, according to farmer Jim MacCurdy. As a beef farmer, he’s grown familiar with caring for his animals, but hopes a large animal veterinarian will be available when there’s an emergency. (Submitted by MacCurdy Farm)

When his cow started showing signs of distress during her pregnancy, beef farmer Jim MacCurdy had to think fast.

"We did everything possible," said MacCurdy, who lives on his farm with his sons in Point La Nim in Restigouche County. "We tried to extract the calf with our own physical strength. We went to the local dairy farmer, and we borrowed their puller.

"We soon realized that we were in a huge pickle. There's no way that that animal is going to come through."

He tried calling for emergency large animal veterinary services, but the most he was able to get was a phone consultation. The calf was dead inside the cow, which died, too, shortly after.

MacCurdy has been a farmer for his family farm for over 40 years. He says he's never had trouble reaching a large animal veterinarian until recently. (Submitted by MacCurdy Farm)

"You have that swelling of the deceased animal inside and she was lying there, just like a dog curls up and puts his head to his body," said MacCurdy. "That's how I found her."

Had a veterinarian been available, both cows might have been saved.

"[I'm not sure if] the general population is aware of what it's like to try to do something like produce milk [and] produce beef — what it's really like if you do not have support when you need it," said MacCurdy. "There was a huge void there."

A promise of service while vets away

The two regular large animal veterinarians that serve northern New Brunswick, typically from Campbellton all the way to Blackville, are on maternity leave, according to MacCurdy.

Russell Kaye, a member of the board of directors for the New Brunswick Cattle Producers, serving the counties of Gloucester and Northumberland, said any farmers and livestock producers in remote communities of northern New Brunswick have been struggling for months. 

"When the vets first left, the head vet of the province told us that there would always be a vet here, no matter what, for emergencies," said Kaye. "That hasn't happened."

Russell Kaye is working to take over his father’s farm in Canobie, near Bathurst. He’s a member of the board of directors of the New Brunswick Cattle Producers. (Russell Kaye Facebook)

The shortage of vets means farmers are forced to rely on telehealth consults. Kaye said this is helpful, but nothing compares to having a professional on the scene.

"We've kind of given up, honestly," Kaye said. "If you have questions and stuff [you can] call, they try the best they can to talk you through on the phone, but nine times out of 10 when one of us calls a vet, it's not for a phone consult, it's because we need a visit."

Kaye said he's worried about the impact this could have on the growth of New Brunswick's agriculture sector at large.

"Whether it's for dairy or beef or equine, everybody that relies on the vets, it's really going to have a negative impact. Really, in the northern areas, maybe this is a reason why producers decide to sell out. Because there's no vets available for the welfare of the cows."

(From Statistics Canada)

According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, there were 2,255 census farms in New Brunswick, down 13.6 per cent from 2011, which was the second largest percentage decline nationally. 

Both dairy and beef cattle farms are in decline — the number of farms reporting dairy cows in 2016 decreased 11.7 per cent, and the number of farms reporting beef cattle declined 19 per cent, compared to 2011 numbers.

Provincial responsibility for large animal vet care

New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador are the only two provinces in Canada where most large animal vet services are provided by the provincial governments, according to the New Brunswick Veterinary Medical Association. 

Provincial veterinary field services, part of the Department of Agriculture, provides on-farm medical, surgical and emergency and other services at all hours of the day or night, according to its government of New Brunswick web page

But a spokesperson noted that large animal vet vacancies, particularly in the northeastern part of the province, are a big concern.

"Veterinarians around the province are working together to provide essential services when an animal is in need of care, through a mix of phone and in-person consults," the department said in an email statement.

Spokesperson Kelly Cormier said the department is trying to ramp up recruitment.

"Recruiting large animal veterinarians has proven to be difficult in recent years, but our efforts have included reaching out to universities and the veterinarian community," she said.

"The challenge to recruit large animal veterinarians is not unique to New Brunswick and is a common issue across Canada."

Large animal veterinarians must have a level of understanding of topics such as food security and biosecurity, as many animals are raised for consumption, says Dr. Jim Berry, the part-president of the provincial veterinary group and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

This might make it even harder to find vets with this area of expertise, he said.

Although government has a duty to offer these services, particularly in remote areas, the shortage of veterinarians makes it difficult to fulfil the mandate.

"If we had enough veterinarians and veterinary technicians, and there was no workforce shortage, then I think having provincially employed veterinarians would make things easier," Berry said. 

But with the shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians, "the government can't hire vets any more easily than anybody else can."

Lack of vets a national issue

According to the provincial association, the shortage of large and small animal veterinarians in the province, and even throughout the country, was inevitable.

"We're only graduating a limited number of veterinarians, some are retiring or leaving the profession, and a sudden increased demand has resulted in where we are," said Dr. Nicole Jewett, the registrar for the association. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the shortage.

"It was kind of a bit of a perfect storm, because we've evolved to be where we are today."

Dr. Nicole Jewett, left, and Dr. Jim Berry are both practising veterinarians with the Douglas Animal Hospital in Fredericton. Jewett is the current registrar of the New Brunswick Veterinary Medical Association, and Berry is the deputy registrar. (Submitted by Dr. Nicole Jewett and Dr. Jim Berry)

In New Brunswick, there are 307 registered veterinarians and 231 registered veterinary technicians, according to the association. 

Berry said the structure of veterinary programs needs to adapt to take on larger cohorts of veterinary students.

"There's a huge amount of infrastructure that's needed, like classroom space, teaching animals, trained faculty," said Berry, who's also a veterinarian for Douglas Animal Hospital in Fredericton.

"So if you're going to increase that you have to increase all of the infrastructure available for that, and that takes government money, it takes a lot of willpower on the parts of the schools."

No quick solution

Even if these things were all implemented today, the consequences wouldn't be felt immediately, he said.

"If you could increase veterinary education spots by four per cent today, it would still take four to five years for those guys to graduate and for those veterinarians to be in the workforce."

In the meantime, the New Brunswick association is working on public awareness campaigns and strengthening telehealth consultations to provide care to animal owners in need.

MacCurdy said that no matter what, he hopes help will be available when his animals need it.

"It's great to have concern, but concern with no action doesn't bring you to [a] solution. You have to have action to resolve a situation. I had no action. None."