I have looked at this subject from the view point of a British veterinary surgeon who has just spent three years in Australia, and I will preface my views by first stating what I think is the function of the veterinary surgeon in an agricultural society.
His first responsibility obviously is to prevent the spread of all diseases which cause economic loss to the country and to prevent the introduction from overseas countries of animal diseases which could endanger the local stock. He must assist in the development of research which will improve the health of all animals, and also ensure that the details of this research, when successfully completed, are made available to enable the veterinary surgeon to diagnose disease on a farmer's property and to prevent its spread. He must assist the livestock owner to understand new world trends in livestock production, so that he can maintain his animals at a high plane and in full production.
How well then is the Australian veterinary profession geared to provide the services which I have just described? Compared with its U.K. counterpart it is relatively poorly prepared.
There are approximately 6,000 registered veterinary surgeons in the U.K., as compared with approximately 700 in Australia. The U.K. veterinary profession of 6,000 men is responsible for the well being of some 25,000,000 sheep, 10,000,000 cattle, 3,000,000 pigs and 90,000,000 poultry; whereas its counterpart in Australia with 700 men is responsible for some 150,000,000 sheep, 16,000,000 cattle, 1,100,000 pigs and approximately 15,000,000 poultry. Although it is not possible to relate exactly the number of veterinary surgeons required in a country to the stock numbers, because methods of animal management will vary considerably, it is obvious that the profession in Australia is well below strength. The intensive system of animal management employed in the U.K. will require more veterinary assistance per animal than the extensive system common in most parts of Australia, but the disparity in numbers in the profession is obviously far too great.
It was estimated in the war years that the annual loss in the U.K. from animal disease alone amounted to over £78,000,000. On that basis it appears likely that the annual loss from animal diseases in Australia could exceed £150,000,000. This figure of £150,000,000 or more can be reduced only by the development of improved veterinary facilities; which would ensure more frequent contact between the grazier, cattleman and the veterinary surgeon. At the moment many graziers and cattle owners are unaware of the fact that their stock are maintained at a subnormal level as far as health is concerned, and thus are unable to distinguish between an animal in good health and one which merely exists. Because this is so the veterinary surgeon is frequently called on now for advice only when several animals have died, and catastrophe to the rest of the stock is threatened.
Only in good health can an animal make a full return for the effort put into its development, and to achieve this an animal must be free of or resistant to many bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases which threaten it. Without a complete veterinary service it is not possible to raise the standard of animal management. It is only the trained veterinary surgeon who can successfully ensure that flock losses from disease are reduced. (Improved pastures and higher stocking bring disease problems which all require local investigation).
What then are the services that should be provided by the veterinary surgeon in an agricultural community, and how well are they being supplied in Australia?
The State Government must provide a staff of veterinary officers who can control all the diseases whose spread could cause serious losses and possibly permanent damage to the flocks and herds of the country. Such diseases as Foot and Mouth disease, Anthrax, Pleuro-pneumonia, Tuberculosis and Brucella abortus all fit into this category. Allied to this service must exist a chain of laboratories in which the diagnosis and examination of disease specimens can be carried out. There must also be a central research body which is capable of organising long term research into the special disease problems which are of economic importance to the country.
These services are the foundation on which must be built the other veterinary facilities necessary in an agricultural community.
To carry out the above functions in the U.K. there are over 500 full-time veterinary officers, whose responsibility is solely that of the administration of the Acts and Orders of the Ministry of Agriculture which refer to animal disease. The strategical deployment of this staff has ensured that outbreaks of such diseases as Foot and Mouth, and Fowl Pest, are brought under rapid control. In addition to the above field officers there are over 140 veterinary officers who are employed solely on research into animal disease. These research workers are responsible for investigations into the disease problems of all domestic animals and also on such allied problems as dairy research and genetics.
In addition, to carry out the detailed investigations necessary in a country with wide geographical variations and animal husbandry conditions there are 22 veterinary investigation centres extending from the south-west of England to the north of Scotland. These centres are staffed with bacteriologists, parasitologists, etc., who can carry out investigations into local problems.
In Australia, to carry out similar veterinary functions there are approximately 200 State Veterinary Officers, 28 Veterinary research workers in the C.S.I.R.O. (according to the 1955-1956 list) and 29 Veterinary Research Workers in State laboratories.
As these figures show, both the States and the C.S.I.R.O. are desperately short of the number of veterinary surgeons necessary to provide a satisfactory coverage.
It is when we come to what can be described as the vital service of the veterinary surgeon to the community, that of consultant and adviser on the farm and property, that the profession in Australia is notably deficient.
In the U.K. there are approximately 4,000 veterinary surgeons in private practice, who offer daily advice and assistance to farmers under widely varying conditions. It is only by frequent contact with a property that a veterinary surgeon can establish the confidence necessary to have his advice sought on all animal problems. The veterinary practitioner by his frequent contact with his clients is the ideal extension officer-he can discuss new developments in all aspects of veterinary science with his clients and by his local knowledge advise on special disease problems. It would have been quite impossible for the dairy cattle industry to have expanded in the U.K. in the manner it has without a strong veterinary practitioner service to advise on such problems as mastitis and infertility, for instance.
In Australia there are 369 veterinary surgeons in practice, but unfortunately a high percentage of these consists of town practitioners, who often make little contribution to the improvement of cattle and sheep husbandry. At the moment, therefore, a mere handful of veterinary surgeons are dealing with the day-to-day problems of the grazier and cattleman.
It is my opinion that without a strong body of veterinary practitioners, the grazier and cattleman (neither of whom is a specialist in the accepted sense of the word) are susceptible to the ideas of the quack and the lay adviser and are liable to believe all the rumours of disease which can spread so rapidly through the countryside.
Many graziers are unaware that their sheep and cattle are sub-standard, and accept annual losses which with veterinary advice would be unnecessary. The relative paucity of veterinary surgeons must be related to the fact that many graziers are unaware of the benefits of veterinary advice. A family of four human beings would not consider it exceptional to spend £15 a year on medical fees, and possibly an additional £10 at the chemist, but the same family on the land would consider it extravagant to pay £30 to £40 in veterinary fees for advice on the management of a flock of even 2,000 sheep: i.e., the cost of 6-10 sheep.
It would appear, therefore, that veterinary practitioners in many areas of Australia can become established only if they are supported initially by a government subsidy, either in the form of a salary or by the payment of special fees for part-time government services. I am sure from my observations that an increase in such veterinary services would bring about a marked rise in animal management standards and reduce animal losses, and in addition lessen the strain at present placed on government veterinary officers. It would be an important aspect of such an arrangement, that the veterinary practitioner should be reasonably independent of day-to-day government control.
Such a practitioner service would need to be supported by veterinary laboratories placed strategically throughout the State.
It seems to me that the animal population could support quite easily at least 3,000 veterinary surgeons, as without a great increase in extension veterinary officers much of the fine research work carried out by the C.S.I.R.O. is wasted.
Losses from such obvious conditions as lice, itch mite, worm infestations, footrot, pregnancy toxaemia, lambing sickness and malnutrition could be greatly reduced by prompt local advice.
To summarise-in my opinion the basis for a sound veterinary service already is established in Australia and it only requires a few strong voices to explain the challenge offered to the veterinary surgeon in Australia for young men to enter the profession.
If a small country like Northern Ireland can support 208 veterinary surgeons, surely Australia with its large animal population must have a much stronger veterinary service, if the high animal losses are not to continue.