Haliburton County Farmers’ Association president Minna Schleifenbaum said she’s aware of at least one instance where an animal has died due to not having a large animal veterinarian stationed in Haliburton County

Farmers and homesteaders have been without a local option for their livestock and other animals since March 2022, when the previous operator, Dr. Aimee Coysh, allowed her contract with the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry to lapse.

The provincial body provides financial support to rural vets servicing large animals through its Veterinary Assistance Program. Introduced in the 1940s, the initiative reimburses eligible vets for their travel costs to and from farms up to a maximum of $40,000 per year, offers up to $2,000 for vets to participate in continuing education courses, and will pay 50 per cent of the costs up to a maximum of $3,000 annually if another vet has to be brought in to assist with, or take, a call.

Godfrey Tyler, a Haliburton farmer, said that program hasn’t seen an increase in over 10 years and no longer meets industry standards.

“It’s been neglected for years,” Tyler said. “Any vet working under that contract is doing so out of pocket. They can make more by staying at their standard practice caring for small animals.”

Schleifenbaum said the lack of a large animal vet was having a significant impact on agriculture in the County. She estimates there are between 650 and 900 livestock owners in the Highlands who, when an issue arises, don’t know where to turn. The nearest clinics are over 70 kilometres away, in Bracebridge, Lindsay and Peterborough. They are all running at capacity, though, so there’s no guarantee a vet would be available in the event of an emergency.

“I personally know of one animal directly dying due to not having a vet, but there are indirect connections to animals dying too,” Schleifenbaum told The Highlander.

“This is a major concern for HCFA. We’re working hard to establish networks, further educate ourselves for emergency situations and build a community agriculture first aid kit to assist farmers and hobbyists with emergencies.”

She said many owners have already chosen to downsize their operations, with some electing to sell up altogether.

Tyler and Schleifenbaum are calling on the County’s lower-tier governments to help them lobby the province for more support. Tyler discussed the issue with Dysart council March 28. Mayor Murray Fearrey said he would bring the issue to the County level and ask for the upper-tier’s support to send a letter to the ministry supporting the HCFA’s efforts.

“Our community always embraces the arts and tourism, but we, as farmers, do not feel the same recognition and support,” Schleifenbaum said.

MPP Laurie Scott said the Ontario government was rolling out a new program this year that would help support large animal vets in rural communities.

“We recognize more must be done to attract and retain large animal veterinarians locating to underserviced areas, which is why the Veterinary Incentive Program, announced in the 2023 budget, will provide $900,000 over three years to support veterinarians locating in underserviced areas,” Scott said. “Although the program details have not yet been finalized, Haliburton County will be on the approved list of areas eligible for the program.”

She added the province was also funneling more money to the University of Guelph, which runs the only licensed doctor of veterinary medicine program in Ontario, to enhance its student intake. Currently, the university graduates around 120 new vets every year, but the province is investing $14.7 million over the next four years to increase the number of graduates by 20 per cent.

Tyler said another piece of the pie is that the County will essentially be bidding against other communities to attract new vets and questioned whether there’s enough activity to convince someone to set up shop here.

“We’re a very small player when it comes to agriculture. We’re goldfish in the ocean, so it’s difficult for us to be able to attract vets to come in,” he said. “If they’re looking at Haliburton County versus somewhere with more of a farming presence, or more money, what do you think they’re going to do?”