About four years ago, Kyesland Farms had an emergency. The farm, formerly known as Kyesland Stables, had a 17-year-old mare pregnant with twins. It became clear one day that the mare, Angel, was battling equine colic resulting pregnancy complications. In desperate need of a veterinarian, owner Kathi Kyes began making calls. But in a moment of emergency, she couldn’t get a veterinarian.

“My mom could not get anybody out there,” Jessica Fortin, who now runs the North Jay farm, said. “By the time she got someone out here and then hauled her to (the closest veterinarian clinic), we almost lost (Angel). We lost both foals.”

Farmers in the Livermore Falls region concerned about emergencies has become the norm as vets and clinics for large animals move farther away and costs for farm visits increase.

Previously, there were a bevy of large animal vets and clinics such as Dr. Everard Cooper of Chesterville, Turner Veterinary Clinic, and Dr. Robert Patterson of Clearwater Veterinary Clinic in Farmington, to name a few.

But in the last 10 to 20 years, farm owners say that regional large animal vets have slowly disappeared. Turner Veterinary Clinic sold its practice to a veterinarian who only treats small animals; “Doc Cooper” passed away in 2013, 87 years old and on the way to work; and Dr. Patterson retired in April at 93.

The only clinic within 30 to 40 minutes of the Livermore Falls region that provides emergency services for large animals is Annabessacook Veterinary Clinic in Monmouth.

Robin Beck, owner of Rockin’ Sheep Farm in Livermore Falls, said emergencies are “scary” because if a vet is not in the office, “they could be coming from anywhere in the state of Maine.”

It also makes transporting animals costly and complicated.

All of the farms interviewed for this story use veterinary services from Annabessacook. They previously used Doc Cooper.

“There’s not that many of them (like Cooper) around anymore,” Beck said.

There’s definitely no more Doc Coopers around. He did everything and anything,” Fortin said. “When you needed him he found a way to get to you.”

Challenges

Using just one clinic has posed a challenge for farms, complicated emergency situations and filled up clinic schedules.

For regular herd checks, Beck said she has to book weeks in advance.

“For Livermore Falls it feels like a one-man show if you’re not getting along with Annabessacook,” owner Charmaine “Charlie” Brown, a veterinarian for 35 years, said. “So in some ways that feels inadequate because there isn’t much to choose from.”

Dr. Michele Walsh, the state veterinarian in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, believes Maine is facing a “distribution” problem, rather than a shortage of vets. She believes the vets are out there, but in specific areas. She also said that due to more interest in self-sufficiency via farm animals during the pandemic, there is also an “increased demand.”

Farmers and Brown said nowadays fewer people are willing to take on the vast financial and personal responsibilities of being a large-animal veterinarian.

Brown believes “the biggest issue is work-life balance and pay.”

Unlike small animal practitioners who can see many animals in a day from their clinic and aren’t frequently on call for emergency farm visits, large animal vets face “a lot of drive time” and working in the elements, which can sometimes be difficult, Brown said.

It’s just really difficult to find people that are willing to give up a majority of their life and a lot of their money to work with large animals all the time,” Beck said. “Unless you get in with a large practice like Annabessacook, you are literally on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Peter Castonguay, owner of Castonguay Aryshires dairy farm in Livermore, said “the days of all you do is work is over with” and “not everybody wants to own a clinic and not ever have time off.”

Fortin and Beck also note that the costs to get started as a veterinarian, from paying for school to purchasing equipment and medicines, pose a major, “awfully expensive” barrier.

“I was always trying to talk kids into going to vet school … (but) they don’t want to graduate with a million dollars in debt. I can’t blame them,” said Beck, who used to work for 4-H, which collaborates with farms in the region.

“Veterinary school is not getting any less expensive,” Walsh said. 

A year’s tuition for the veterinary medicine program at Tufts, the closest school with a program, is $60,694 for out-of-state students in 2020-21.

A few solutions

Offering solutions to this conundrum, Castonguay believes clinics with multiple vets who can rely on each other, such as Annabessacook, are the future of the veterinarian industry.

Brown said clinics like Annabessacook that have six or seven vets who treat large animals allow them to “afford work-life balance” because they’re not on call all the time for “everything under the sun.”

Beck also learned from working on a USDA advisory board that people need to be provided with “incentives” to “come into veterinarian care” such as deferring loans for recently graduated veterinarians, paying off their education “if they’re willing to (treat) large animals in rural areas” for a certain period of time, and offering grants that help fund veterinarian equipment, particularly equipment needed for mobile practices.

Walsh referred to the Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program offered through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture as a source that’s reinvigorated the veterinarian industry in Maine. Those accepted into the program offer their services in “veterinarian shortage situations” and in return the institute will repay up to $25,000 of their student loan debt per year.

Walsh said Maine has participated in this program for 10 years and her Animal Health division might conduct a new survey this year to determine which counties in Maine have the greatest need, which they do “when we have a sense that the landscape is changing” as it has in the pandemic.

The institute lists Hancock, Knox, Waldo and Washington counties as 2021 shortage areas for “rural area food animal medicine.”

We will always need large animal practitioners in Maine because we are one of the more rural states in New England with more agriculture,” Walsh said. “I do think it’s important for both the federal government and state government, particularly for Maine, to keep this area as an attractive area for people to practice.”

Walsh and Fortin also recommend searching for resources online or working with one’s veterinarian to stock a first-aid cabinet and emergency travel kit for large animals.

“Working with your veterinarian to figure these things out is really helpful and can actually save lives,” Walsh said.


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