N.S. sheep farmer questions new antibiotic regulations

by Rupert Jannasch

FF Jan. 19 Rupert Jannasch Headshot.jpg

“Antimicrobial Resistance and Use in Canada: A Federal Framework for Action” marks a turning point for antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

As of Dec. 1, 2018, almost all antibiotics used for animals will have to be prescribed by a veterinarian. Legal prescriptions will depend on having a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) in place. At a minimum, maintaining a VCPR will require a yearly farm visit by a vet.

There is little dispute that antimicrobial resistance is one of the most critical issues facing society today. However, the measures introduced by the Canadian government to prevent the unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock have been remarkable for their lack of clarity and lopsided consequences. Despite many announcements about the rule changes during the past 18 months, the lack of detail and apparent oversights have created confusion and uncertainty for many who keep farm animals.

Poor information fuels rumours and frustration. Cattlemen with sizeable herds claim their VCPR was in order only to learn the opposite when they needed medication. Others expressed surprise that antibiotics could only be purchased in a syringe rather than by the bottle. There are complaints of higher costs for antibiotics and unnecessary delays to obtain them. And questions linger whether the rules allow prescriptions for preventative doses.

With fewer than 100 ewes on my farm, I have rarely called a vet in recent years. I can’t justify a monthly herd health visit as might dairy farmers or larger beef and sheep producers. My VCPR is valid for a few more months because my vet visited last winter for some blood testing.

I use few antibiotics as a rule, but keep penicillin on hand for cases of foot rot and to prevent infections after difficult births. When I called for a refill the other day, my vet readily prescribed a 500-millilitre bottle. The cost was not different from other years or other places of business.

Even so, explanations are needed to better explain the rules. Perhaps veterinary clinics could have done a better job of explaining the changes before the Dec. 1 deadline. Given the tremendous amount of authority – and responsibility – vested in veterinarians to control the flow of antibiotics, it stands to reason they should explain how it will be done.

On the other hand, without a working relationship with a livestock owner already in place, it is understandably difficult for veterinarians to generate a credible explanation for what is a touchy message.

By and large, I consider myself lucky because I have enough sheep to justify an annual visit from a vet one way or another. Besides, my vet takes an interest in my flock and it is only a half-hour’s drive from the clinic.

What if you can’t find a vet? It is no secret that in many remote communities in Atlantic Canada, large animal vets are far away or non-existent. How will the VCPR rule be handled in those cases?

Livestock operations in remote areas also tend to be smaller than in more populated regions. How will their owners absorb the cost of a vet visit? How does someone with half a dozen beef cows justify the vet costs for a simple infection when they live two hour’s drive from a clinic?

Some have suggested travel costs to isolated communities be reduced by coordinating veterinary visits with friends and neighbours. This may work, but only in exceptional cases at best. Something must be done to guarantee reasonable access to veterinary services for livestock owners in remote areas. No matter what scale of operation they run, their work and effort is all that more important exactly because of where they live.

Politicians and bureaucrats are quick to proclaim rural communities as the heart and soul of Canada, yet they are as quick to ignore the needs of people who live and work there. Clearly, not everyone who uses antibiotics on livestock was invited to the table when the new regulatory scheme was hatched. Was it assumed they just don’t matter?

Unlike the exemptions made for medicated feeds (now there is a thorny issue!), smallholders, hobby farmers, horse loggers, and many others do not have an industry organization to lobby on their behalf. Yet they are no less deserving of regulations appropriate to the work they do.

It is early days with this new initiative, and hopefully the rules can be tweaked to create a sensible solution to a messy and inequitable problem. If there are finer details designed to address the oversights in the new regulations, then it is high time all livestock owners heard about them.

(Rupert Jannasch operates a mixed farm in Summerville, N.S., and is a councillor for the West Hants municipal district.)