Wednesday, 13 April 2011 13:27

Price war could reduce vet numbers

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Dairy vets use their knowledge of reproductive physiology to develop the best reproduction program for farmers. Dairy vets use their knowledge of reproductive physiology to develop the best reproduction program for farmers.

IN MY role as President of the Australian Cattle Veterinarians, I hear about issues that are concerning cattle vets from all over Australia.

One issue that is consistently at the top of the list is the challenge to veterinary practices posed by unqualified non-veterinarians performing various services which were traditionally the domain of vets. These lay operators are eroding the profitability – and in some cases the viability – of practices providing a service to dairy farms in some parts of the country

I have listened and watched with great interest and empathy to all the arguments about the “supermarket milk war” and how unsustainable price cutting is affecting the future viability of Australian dairy farms. I agree that if an unfair, unsustainable price war forces dairy farmers to the wall – then all Australians will be the poorer for it. Food security is something that is impossible to really put a value on.

However, I find it ironic that many of the same farmers who feel that they are suffering as a result of the “unfair” price cutting and competition by supermarkets are the same farmers who – without giving it a second thought – use an unqualified and unregistered person to pregnancy test their cows, employ the services of a semen salesperson (whose job is to sell more semen) to work out their reproductive program or get their local “old mate” from the produce store to tell them which vaccine and drench they should use.

For a long time, various rural stores and co-operatives have used their buying power and market share to cut the margins on vaccines and drenches to levels that many veterinary practices have found difficult to compete with. Semen companies have used reproduction programs as “loss leaders” to increase semen sales. While lay pregnancy testers – with little more than a new ultrasound unit and a few days training – have hit the roads pregnancy testing cows.

Does any of this sound familiar?

So how is the way that the supermarkets are screwing dairy farmers over milk pricing any different to how many in the dairy industry have treated professional dairy veterinarians who have dedicated their lives to the animals we care for?

Dairy veterinarians who have undergone a peer-reviewed testing and auditing program to become accredited as a NCPD pregnancy tester are the “gold standard” of pregnancy testing. While a lay pregnancy testing service could be seen as an alternative, it’s by no means an equivalent service. Especially when you compare the difference in knowledge base and the potential for herd level advice that your qualified NCPD accredited veterinarian can offer. Surely that is worth a few extra dollars?

When a dairy veterinarian advises on a reproduction program, they use their knowledge of reproductive physiology to develop the best program. They are not guided by which program might result in the most units of semen used. Here, we could actually save farmers money!

I have had plenty of farmers tell me that veterinarians must get with the game and become more proactive in selling our services – a bit more “slick” with marketing our services.

Maybe we should get the executives of the big supermarkets to give us a few hints!

Or maybe we should use the same argument that the dairy farmers themselves have used. Dairy farmers must realise that your veterinarian is the professional who sets the standard by which the others must be measured.

When determining what is actually value for money it is critical the dairy industry applies the same logic it has used to argue against the supermarket “milk war”.

If dairy farmers choose to use alternative, but non-equivalent service providers, then veterinarians will continue to drift to the cities and into small animal practices. Experienced veterinary services may be lost to large areas of the dairy industry and we will all be the worse for it.

Rob Bonanno is president of the Australian Cattle Veterinarians Association and a director of the Shepparton Veterinary Clinic.

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